A Blog of Seattle Arts & Lectures

2020 Summer Book Bingo: Set in a City of Literature

We’re enjoying the summer weather while reading and playing 2020 Summer Book Bingo, our free summer reading program with The Seattle Public Library! Download your card here. Engage with other bingo players and find out their own reading adventures by using the hashtag #BookBingoNW2020 on social media.

Christina Gould, SAL’s Patron Services Manager and world traveler, shares ideas of what to read for your “Set in a City of Literature” category. Aren’t quite sure what a City of Literature is? Don’t know where to find one on a map? Read on to learn more. Then, Christina focuses in one City of Literature that’s close to our hearts, suggesting excellent fiction and non-fiction reads that take place there . . .

By Christina Gould, SAL’s Patron Services Manager

Like many of us, I had national and international travel plans scheduled for 2020 that have been postponed indefinitely. Like many of us, the momentous disappointments and minor inconveniences of COVID-19 have necessitated some adjusting and creative thinking.

A word I hear often during this pandemic is pivot. We are all doing it, personally and professionally. We are watching art performances online, attending birthday parties, graduations, and even weddings online, relying on curbside pickup for food and retail items, not to mention working remotely (if we’re lucky to be working). Pivoting is what attracted me to this bingo square. If I can’t travel in person, at least, I thought, I can travel through reading.

Since 2004, UNESCO has designated thirty-nine cities as a City of Literature. The cities are in twenty-eight countries on six continents. In 2017, Seattle became a UNESCO City of Literature thanks to a non-profit organization called Seattle City of Literature that managed Seattle’s bid to join the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. This honor recognizes the vitality, range, and vigor of the city’s literary culture. (Iowa City is the only other U.S. city in this network!)

While working on this post, the list of cities and their literature tantalized, provoking questions and thoughts: “Oh, I loved my time there,” “I want to go there,” “Wish I could live there,” Love their cuisine,” “Will I ever be able to travel there?” The options made me dazed and confused. How could I choose?

Time to pivot. I live in a city surrounded by water and mountains. I live in a City of Literature. I work at a literary arts organization. I live amongst world-famous and emerging writers; I work with a few of them, for heaven’s sake. Being grounded has made me appreciate what is in my own background. I love my city and SAL. I feel contentment; no need to travel for now. What a delight!

Here are a few fiction and non-fiction recommendations set in our very own City of Literature:

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa. This debut novel takes place during five chaotic days of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. Although it was almost twenty years ago, that time feels similar and relevant today—there was police brutality, destruction of property, emotions from hope to anger to a moment of real change. At the center of the novel is the question posed by the protests themselves: What kind of world do we want, and what must we do to get it? Six main characters become very real and by the day’s end, they all commit acts they never thought possible. This novel is heartbreaking and pulse-pounding.

The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. I love the Panama Hotel and Tea House built by the first Japanese American architect in Seattle Sabro Ozasa, and I am grateful for the owner Jan Johnson, who restored the building. The hotel plays an important role in this novel. The author, who is Chinese American, has placed the novel in the wartime 1940s and the mid-1980s. The main characters are friends—6th grade Henry, a Chinese boy, and Keiko, a Japanese girl. As the war encroaches, Henry watches helplessly as Keiko and her family are stripped of their rights and property and, much to his discomfort, his father makes him wear an “I am Chinese” button everywhere. Ford does wonderful work recreating pre-war Seattle. He clearly knows the territory, geographically and emotionally. It is a lovely story of romantic coincidence, historical detail, and realism.

Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos. This debut novel is the story of two women in self-imposed exile whose lives are transformed when their paths intersect. Margaret Hughes is a septuagenarian who is living alone in a mansion in Seattle, and Wanda Schultz is a young woman with a broken heart. I love the novels of Anne Tyler, and Kallos’ work recalls her work of a potpourri of eccentric and irresistible characters that are funny and heartbreaking and the saving grace of families or surrogate families. My mom and I are reading this one for our square.

The Boats in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. This is the story of legendary boat designer George Pocock and famed coach Al Ulbrickson, as well as all the boys of the legendary University of Washington rowing team, who won the Olympic Gold Medal during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. With incredible attention to detail and insight into the sport of rowing, the author follows a crew member, Joe Rantz, through his difficult early childhood and his last days. This book is about loss and redemption. It has drama and pathos and moral scope. It gives a bird’s eye view to America’s struggle during the Great Depression. Needless to say, this story is not out of style, and there are lessons to be learned for all of us. These young men showed the utmost determination to go face-to-face against the world’s elite for gold, and through their story, we learn about the amazing physical and psychological demands of rowing. This win put Seattle and the University of Washington on the map, and in everyone’s mind!

The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black & White by Doug Merlino. The Hustle tells the stories of ten basketball teammates set before a background of sweeping social and economic change, capturing the ways race, money, and opportunity shape our lives. It is the story of an experiment that was dreamed up by two fathers, one white, one black. What would happen if they mixed white players from an elite Seattle private school and Black kids from the inner city on a basketball team? The team’s season unfolded like a perfectly-scripted sports movie . . . But was it? How did crossing lines of class, race, and wealth affect the lives of these ten boys? Two decades later, Doug Merlino, who played on the team, returned to find his teammates. The result is a complex, gripping, and at times, unsettling story.

Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle by Paul De Barros. Paul De Barros is a Seattle journalist who has interviewed every jazz legend you can think of. He is also the co-founder of Earshot Jazz. Seattle receives little mention in jazz histories, but the author shows that Seattle is a fertile ground for jazz talent. His exhaustive chronicle outlines the careers of local musicians who achieved fame (Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, and vocalists Ernestine Anderson and Mildred Bailey) and the many who remained local. The interviews with musicians provide a rich perspective on local jazz history, including the effects of racism on musicians’ careers. A bonus: there are vintage photographs and twenty-four contemporary portraits that capture the style and flavor of Jackson Street and its jazz legends. And picture this, jazz and music lovers: from 1937-1951, Jackson Street boasted thirty-four nightclubs!

Looking for more recommendations for books set in a city of literature? Check out The Seattle Public Library’s suggestions for this category here.

Posted in SAL Staff/BoardSummer Book Bingo