If any one place personifies Seattle's history, it is Pioneer Square. Economically it was home to the city's first business, central to the city's growth...

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“Pioneer Square: Seattle’s Oldest Neighborhood”
edited by Mildred Tanner Andrews
Pioneer Community Association/University of Washington Press,
235 pp., $29.95

If any one place personifies Seattle’s history, it is Pioneer Square. Economically it was home to the city’s first business, central to the city’s growth as a railroad hub, supply center for the Klondike Gold Rush and one heart of the dot-com craze of the 1990s. Culturally, Pioneer Square has been home to immigrants, pioneer families, artists and prostitutes. In the words of Mildred Tanner Andrews, editor of “Pioneer Square: Seattle’s Oldest Neighborhood,” “Pioneer Square presents the story of our region in all its color, diversity, and spirit.”

First inhabited by the Duwamish people (who still live in the Seattle area), Pioneer Square was settled by Seattle’s founding families in April 1852. In 1853, Henry Yesler established the first business, a sawmill, which also gave the area one of its infamous nicknames, Skid Road. (Others include the Lava Beds, Below the Deadline and Down on the Sawdust.) The city’s status was enhanced by the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897, which brought people, money and publicity. And the construction of the western terminus of a transcontinental railroad helped make Seattle the premier city of the state.

Culturally, Pioneer Square has been a locus of diversity. Immigrants, including Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, blacks and Jews, settled in the neighborhood. During the Depression it was home to Hooverville (one of the homeless encampments that sprouted up during that time). In the early 20th century, only New York was a bigger center for vaudeville, and Pioneer Square is still Seattle’s center for galleries, bookstores and clubbing. Pioneer Square has also had a long reputation as a den of iniquity.

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Andrews and her co-authors, including historians Karin Link, Dana Cox and Marc Blackburn, write passionately and knowledgeably about Pioneer Square. Best read in sections, it would be a fun book to wander the area with. “Pioneer Square” provides an excellent introduction to the chaos, tragedy and happiness that made and still make Seattle an interesting place to live.

Reviewed by David B. Williams

“Katharine Graham: The Leadership Journey of an American Icon”
by Robin Gerber
Viking Portfolio, 248 pp., $24.95

Katharine Graham’s best-selling 1997 autobiography, “Personal History,” was such a candid and affecting memoir by the legendary owner of The Washington Post that it hardly seems necessary to say more. Graham put it all on the page — the personal tragedies, self-doubt and steely resolve that brought her to the peak of journalism — with a style that won both readers and the Pulitzer Prize. She was a famous figure by the time she died in 2001.

So it’s interesting to see author Robin Gerber try to pick up on the single strand of Graham’s rise as a business titan for her bio-study “Katharine Graham: The Leadership Journey of an American Icon.” Her purpose isn’t to repeat the stories, but to gain insight into what Graham did with each challenge, drawing on the background of the time, when a woman leading a business was also breaking new ground.

Gerber isn’t in the same league with her own subject as a writer. But through interviews with Graham’s friends and business associates, she brings an acute perception to understanding this shy, fearful middle-age woman who rose beyond all manner of crises to build a publishing empire.

Consider these episodes in her life, all fraught with high drama: the depression and suicide of her husband, Phil Graham; a pressman’s strike; a Supreme Court battle over publication of the Pentagon Papers; Watergate; taking the Post Co. public. Initially, Graham just dealt with everything by instinct but over time grew smart in choosing her battles, and lucky with her friends, including investor Warren Buffett.

Gerber deconstructs this transformation with great detail. She may fall back on platitudes like Graham’s early behavior as “imposter syndrome,” and there’s a ton of Oprah-speak in her account of Graham’s ultimate triumphs. But she gets under the skin of Graham’s character as a businesswoman who finally realizes “I might really get to be the most powerful woman in whatever it is.”

Reviewed by Lucy Mohl

“A Primitive Heart”
by David Rabe
Grove Press, 287 pp., $23

In the title story of “A Primitive Heart,” the new short-story collection by Tony-Award winning playwright David Rabe, a man reads about fetal development, learning that in the third week the unborn child develops “a head and tail, a neural groove, a primitive heart.” Later come eyes, limbs, facial characteristics. But the simple, throbbing heart animates it all, and in each of these half-dozen stories it is the heart that rules, impulsively, irrationally, sometimes self-destructively.

In “Veranda,” a man on his way to visit his ex-wife and young son has an affair with a movie actress. Two fragmented lives happen to intersect, and the primitive hearts involved can’t cope with the complications. Their lovemaking is interrupted by a phone call from her agent, news of a movie role. Her lover listens, thinks, “She’s gone and gone and gone. That’s the way I feel. The room might was well be empty.”

After visiting his son he discovers that causing pain can be worse than being the recipient. As he drives away and the boy screams for him, the father understands that “we are lover and beloved in an indispensable and fated romance.” That “we” means father and son, and also the players in every unresolved relationship.

These are gripping stories, hard to put aside, that cut so close to primitive emotional truths that they can be painful to read. The characters are victims of urges of which they are sometimes only dimly aware. If there’s a weakness in any of the stories, it’s that Rabe sometimes lets us hear these people’s inner musings and fumblings long past the point where we get it, and yet that vivid confusion — the desire to understand something more primitive than thought — makes these stories unforgettable.

Reviewed by Richard Wakefield