What I’ve Been Reading and Writing: March 2021

I don’t mention it often, but one of my weirdest (and most fulfilling) gigs is that I sit on the nominating board for the Prowda Literary Champion Awards. It’s a pretty cushy position: Every January, I get together with the nominating board to discuss people and organizations that have done exceptional work benefitting Seattle’s literary community over the past year. We talk, bargain, and debate over snacks until we come away with two winners. I’ve done this three times, and this year’s was the easiest selection process yet. As our friends at Seattle Arts and Lectures just announced, the 2021 Prowda Literary Champion Awards went to Ijeoma Oluo and Jack Straw Cultural Center. Oluo has spent much of her energy during the pandemic directing funds to local artists of color, whose primary sources of income largely fell away with the first lockdowns last March. And over the span of decades, Jack Straw founder Joan Rabinowitz has built an institution that helps Seattle writers learn how to better communicate their work in spoken mediums. These are two remarkable women who have given so much to Seattle, and in so doing they’ve encouraged all of us to be better. I hope you’ll read more about this year’s winners. They make me so proud to be a part of this community.

fIND ME ONLINE

I haven’t been doing many personal appearances lately. That cold streak ends this Saturday, March 27th, when you can catch me as part of an AHOY Comics panel at WonderCon, which is happening virtually over the weekend. The panel begins at 1 pm EST, and I’ll be appearing with a number of AHOY greats including Tom Peyer, Stuart Moore, artist Liana Kangas, Seattle writer Eric Palicki, and Mark Russell, who is one of my favorite comics writers working today. We will all be discussing our upcoming AHOY titles, and you’ll get a tiny little peek at a comic I have coming out later this year. For more information, SyFy previewed the event here.

I’ve Been Writing

I’ve published two pieces in the Seattle Times this month. The first is an interview with Iraqi-American Mortada Gzar marking the publication of his new memoir about moving to Seattle on the day of the 2016 election:

While many high-profile immigration memoirs of the past few decades — Frank McCourt’s bestselling “Angela’s Ashes,” for example — end with the author arriving in America, presenting the U.S. as both the climax of the narrative and the solution to the narrator’s problems, “I’m in Seattle” begins with Gzar arriving at Seatle-Tacoma International Airport. The narrative continues forward, with him finding his way in Seattle, and his youth in Iraq is relayed in flashbacks as Gzar navigates his new city.

“When entering into a new country, old memories are attacking you all the time,” Gzar says. 

And the second is a profile of the wonderful Fremont cookbook store, The Book Larder, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this fall. Please be advised: There are tons of amazing cookbook recommendations in this one:

Book Larder events are not your typical literary reading. “We always make a little bite of food from the book for people to try,” [Book Larder owner Lara] Hamilton says, “and because the setting is intimate and we have so much support from journalists and bloggers and different people in the local food community who are willing to come in and do interviews for us, we’ve had some really great conversations.”

My day-job writing has been wonkier than usual, but I’ve been pretty satisfied with the way I’ve communicated some complex economic and financial ideas in what I hope is plain English. I’ve written about why stimulus opponents’ threats of hyperinflation are hugely overrated, how a new agency might help bridge the gap between private enterprise and government investment, and what Silicon Valley Representative Ro Khanna thinks of the whole GameStonk mess.

I also wrote a very thorough debunking of the biggest arguments against taxing capital gains profits from the sale of stocks and bonds. If you don’t know, Washington state is getting veeeeery close to taxing some of the exorbitant Wall Street profits of the 8000 wealthiest people in the state and putting that money toward pandemic relief for the people who need it most. This is literally unprecedented in Washington history, and it’s exciting stuff.

I’ve Been reading

The recommendation section is a little shorter than usual this month—partly because I’ve found it hard to read with the late-stage pandemic of it all, but partly because I’m reading a book I’m going to be writing about next month and I’m also doing a ton of reading for research on a secret comics project that’s just getting underway.

I’m not usually a fan of comics that feature only one panel per page—part of the reason I like comics is the way the panels fall into each other, creating a different way of perceiving time than in any other medium. But the one-panel-per-page rhythm works really well for Erin Williams’s memoir-in-comics, Commute. It’s framed as a story of Williams commuting to and from work—taking the train, walking in the city, walking home—but it’s really a meditation about the way she’s treated by men in public spaces, and an accounting of the abuse men have committed in her life. Told mostly in sharp black and white, but with occasional bright bursts of color, Commute is a bracing account of being a woman in a world where men still believe they can take possession of women’s bodies at any time. I’d recommend this one particularly for men: the simple one-panel-per-page staccato rhythm helps put the reader directly into Williams’s perspective. It’s a challenging book, but very worthwhile.

Much has been written about Abraham Riesman’s biography True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, with most of the discourse being centered around how much of the Marvel Universe was created by Lee and how much was created by the artists. It’s a frustrating discussion because we’ll never truly have an objective answer. Even under the best conditions, comics collaboration is messy, and there’s no way to parse out the percentages in a truly fair manner. (Speaking for myself as a comics writer, I find it’s best to overcorrect in favor of giving more credit to the artists, since a comic without an artist is definitionally not a comic. I might spend two hours writing a page, but the artist is likely to spend at least four times that—at least—bringing the page into the world. Honoring that outsized contribution is quite literally the least a writer can do, in my opinion.) But for me the most interesting, heartbreaking part of the story is the complete and total hellscape that was the last few years of Lee’s life, in which he was surrounded by grifters who milked him for easy money as he shrank in size and mental acuity. While reading this book, I watched the Netflix film I Care a Lot, a dark comedy which stars the brilliant Rosamund Pike as a con artist sucking the money out of retirement funds and dumping old people in horrible conditions. Taken together, these two narratives are a reminder that our country treats our elders terribly, and I worry that things will only get worse the more America’s population continues to age.

In last month’s newsletter, I wrote about Patricia Lockwood’s exceptional novel about being Extremely Online, No One Is Talking About This. This month, I read Lauren Oyler’s novel Fake Accounts, which is about a young woman who discovers her boyfriend has an unhealthy secret life online. And while I hate it when men compare two unrelated women artists, these two novels are so close in subject matter and perspective that I feel the comparison is welcome—Lockwood and Oyler have even remarked on the similarity themselves and done online readings together. While Lockwood’s book is a high-level observation of the structural way that the internet has changed our brains and behaviors, Oyler’s book is more about the content we shove inside the structure of the internet—writing that is meant to go viral, social media posts that are first created to appeal to algorithms rather than human beings. Fake Accounts is a more traditional novel than Lockwood’s, but it’s also a hell of a page-turner. Even though it’s a relatively plot-free literary novel, I was pasted to this book; I couldn’t wait to find out what happens.

That’s it for this month

In closing, I’d like to send my thoughts and prayers to Washington State Senator Mark Schoesler. The state Republican party likely thought they were boosting Sen. Schoesler’s profile by tweeting out a quote-meme from one of his typically boring-but-folksy anti-tax speeches. Instead, they accidentally created this amazing, beautiful piece of art that I will always treasure:

Feel free to share Mark in any way you deem appropriate.

More next month. Take care of yourself until then.

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