Danny Westneat: a book club guy

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Danny Westneat at a Society of Professional Journalists event last May where the Western Washington chapter honored him as journalist of the year.

Danny Westneat is a Metro columnist for the Seattle Times, and an avid fiction reader who has spent 21 years in the same book group. He grew up in Ohio, the son of a scientist who was the son of a Baptist minister. Danny spent four years covering Congress and the White House, and has also written on the environment, politics and local city halls.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

I’m reading Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish. It’s about a Chinese illegal immigrant and a PTSD-addled soldier in the Patriot Act era, so it’s kind of “topical fiction.” After that I’m going to read the new Kazuo Ishiguro book Buried Giant. It’s getting mixed reviews, but the one he wrote before that, Never Let Me Go, was beautiful — which is saying something because it was about cloning.

Do you read more fiction or non-fiction?

For my job I read tons of non-fiction, mostly newspapers and magazines. So off-duty I read fiction. I have been in the same book club now for 21 years, and in that time we’ve read about 250 books, all fiction. The book club is all men, and for some reason many of them went to Whitman College in Walla Walla. I can’t vouch for that place, other than to say their graduates for the most part know how to read. Our book club has two rules: 1) We only read fiction, and 2) If you foist a book on everyone that turns out to suck, you will be mocked for as long as the book club exists. When we made that rule we didn’t expect the book club to last for decades. So the mocking has really started to pile up.

Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?

About 10 years ago our book club instituted a “summer book policy,” in which we spend the entire summer reading a longer novel in the category of “books you should have read but were too lazy to do by yourself.” So that means Don Quixote, War and Peace, Tin Drum, Ulysses, Infinite Jest, Anna Karenina, Shadow Country, Gravity’s Rainbow, Moby Dick. That’s like 10,000 pages of some of the best writing in the history of the world. It’s also the least-summery summer reading list ever compiled. I doubt I would have read a word of it without being intensely peer-pressured. But it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Of those, War and Peace and Moby Dick rule. Who knew Moby Dick was laugh-out-loud funny? The first half of Don Quixote is also absolutely not to be missed. Also Infinite Jest, because it’s true that David Foster Wallace was the modern American genius, and the book is so revealing and human about addiction. It’s also dead-on prescient about how our real drug is entertainment, which he knew even before smart phones. But all of those books are so hard you definitely need a support group, or at least I did.

Any hands-down favorite authors?

One book I think about constantly, though I read it 13 years ago, is Erasure by Percival Everett. Sheer brilliant satire, of the kind where you’re nodding along thinking you’re in on the joke until suddenly you realize you are the one being satirized. It’s about race and media and America tied up in knots by both. Best book you’ve never heard of. Other favorites: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Death on the Installment Plan, Robert Coover’s Universal Baseball Association, Inc., and Edward Jones’ The Known World. My favorite movie is Apocalypse Now, and once our book club read the movie screenplay along with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It was a stroke of art to update the 1800s Congo with “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Maybe you can tell I like the dark stuff.

How many columns do you write for the Seattle Times each week?

I write two columns a week. When I say that people usually ask: "Oh, what do you do with the rest of your time?" It’s a great question I can’t answer: I’ve got summer reading to finish? I guess the truth is I spend most of my time in a neurotic, confused search for the next thing to write about.

What sources of information do you rely on to stay informed about local and regional issues?

I read tons of community news. I probably read 25 community newspapers a week — from the Bellevue Reporter to the South Whidbey Record to the Ballard News-Tribune (where I wrote my first post-college article back in 1989). I’m searching for hidden stories or themes to turn into a column. I like the small stories.

Any well-reviewed or popular books lately that you felt didn’t live up to the hype? That disappointed you? Why?

I’ve hated all the pompous self-indulgent stuff Jonathan Franzen has written since The Corrections, which truly was a great book. He should have stopped there.

What were your most cherished childhood books?

There are four non-fiction books I read when I was younger that together propelled me to go into journalism. One was Ball Four, which I read when I was 16. It showed me I knew nothing about the one thing I thought I knew the most about, baseball. Another is Heaven Is A Playground, by Rick Telander, about street basketball in New York City. A third is Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, about how America’s dam-building obsession was driven not by need but by bureaucratic ego. And Bruce Brown’s Mountain in the Clouds, probably the best book ever written about the Pacific Northwest (although Ball Four is about the Seattle Pilots)! All four of these books made me desperately want to go find stories and tell them.

After Ball Four came out, supposedly Pete Rose yelled at the author, the pitcher Jim Bouton, during a game: “(Bleep) you, Shakespeare!” Not only is that the all-time best literary insult — it alone qualifies Rose for the Hall of Fame — but as a kid I found it perversely inspirational. I realized I wanted to write something that would get people to say “(Bleep) You, Shakespeare!” at me. As a columnist, I’ve now achieved that “Bleep You” goal many times over. Still working on the Shakespeare part.

What do you plan to read next?

This summer my pain-seeking book club is reading Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth. It’s supposed to be great, but it’s 1,400 pages! Oh well, you can’t survive in a book club for 21 years without learning how to do some serious skimming.

What Val is Reading This Week: A book by a young journalist about her near-death descent into a virulent illness, and her perilous recovery. “Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness,” by Susannah Cahalan is the author’s careful reconstruction, through videos, diaries and interviews, of her missing month. Her story is a shocking and compelling medical mystery story, and an illumination of how our ability to survive such a crisis depends on advocacy, money and luck.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Valerie Easton

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, includingThe New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.