What I’ve Been Writing and Reading: August, 2021

I haven’t been posting on Twitter very much lately. Sometimes the news feels too terrible to comment on. Sometimes I feel like I have nothing original to say, or I’m just exhausted by the discourse. I’m also trying not to amplify bad takes, and some days all the takes are bad. 

One thing I did tweet, though, was that I’ve been missing the freedom of blogging lately. The idea of a place online where a person or a select group of people can just publicly talk about everything on their minds—at length or in brief—is now so far in the past that it seems almost quaint.I don’t want to be nostalgic, because I honestly believe that nostalgia is a poison, but the return of Gawker has reminded me that blogging was once its own form of literary communication, and that form has all but gone extinct.

I love the brevity of Twitter, and I enjoy the epistolic nature of newsletters more with each passing month. But the idea of a blog—of a handful of smart people sharing a strip of online real estate and having a never-ending conversation—was an actually new idea in the media world. And before we even really had a chance to investigate the possibilities of the form, it was murdered by the walling-off of the web. And that’s a shame.

Find me online

I was honored to be the subject of comics journalist Katie Liggera’s first interview. She’s got a boundless enthusiasm for comics and is at the beginning of what I hope will be a long career. The interview, which was published at Comic Book Yeti, is a wide-ranging and fun discussion about the comic that Fred Harper and I created, Snelson: Comedy Is Dying.

I also did an interview with Comics Multiverse where we talked about my lifelong love of comics, which Marvel and DC characters I’d like to write, and much more. The second issue of Snelson: Comedy Is Dying is coming out at the beginning of September and this issue is the thesis statement for the whole series, a deep dive into the fallacious idea of cancel culture. Fred also drew a panel in this issue that took my breath away when I saw it for the first time:

It’s the shadows on the wall that get me.

I’ve been writing

For the Seattle Times, I interviewed the amazing Susanna Ryan, who is maybe better known as the Instagram cartoonist known as Seattle Walk Report. Earlier this month, she published her second book of Seattle-centric cartoons, Secret Seattle. If you live in the area, you really should read this book. Ryan has a gift for finding all kinds of historical items of note around the city, researching the history behind those items, and then relaying that information to readers in funny, economical comics. So the book is packed with anecdotes about the century-old coal chutes, hidden cemeteries, and fascinating tiny pieces of the city that you likely walk past without even noticing.

 I also broke some news in my monthly Seattle Times bookstore profile column: The Edmonds Bookshop, which next year marks 50 years in operation, is changing ownership. Mary Kay Sneeringer, who has owned the store for 20 years, is passing the baton to Michelle Bear, the shop’s assistant manager. Sneeringer shared some really interesting, touching anecdotes about her time as the store’s owner, and it’s exciting to see a mainstay of downtown Edmonds prepare to enter a new generation of ownership.

In my Business Insider column this month, I wrote about a remarkable interview with Redfin’s CEO, in which he talks about the problem with housing inequality and why we can only get out of this urban housing crisis by taxing the hell out of the super-rich. I also wrote about why filing taxes in America is such a mess, why a Frito Lay worker strike in Kansas managed to capture America’s attention, and why America’s $7.25 federal minimum wage is a national embarrassment (and also why you could make a very credible case for a $24 minimum wage.)

I’ve been reading

I went to the beach for a week and read an entire shelf’s worth of books, so you are warned: This section is going to be unnaturally long this month.First of all: I had never read Finnish cartoonist Tove Jansson’s novel The Summer Book before, and oh my God I’m so glad I finally did. I sat down in the sun on a sunny afternoon and started reading this book, about a grumpy young girl and her grumpy old grandmother spending the summer on an island, and I didn’t stand up again until I’d read the whole thing through. Summer, for me, is always a mix of sadness and joy. I can’t fully enjoy a beautiful summer day because I’m always painfully aware of the fact that the beauty is transitory, and soon it will be rainy and cold and the trees will be bare. (I absolutely love autumn, but I also absolutely hate the approach of autumn at the end of summer, when the weather gets unpredictable and surly and the days get noticeably shorter with each passing week.) I’ve never read a book that captures that summer melancholy so completely, and so beautifully. I already know that I’m going to read this book over and over again—probably once a summer—and I’ve already pushed it into peoples’ hands and mailed copies to friends. (And I make sure to hand it over with the warning that you shouldn’t read the introduction first. Read it at the end. It gives too much away.) If summer’s excess and abundance and beauty ever makes you feel a little bit sad and overwhelmed, this book will make you feel understood. It’s pure melancholic magic.

I listened to the audiobook of Saturday Night Live performer Cecily Strong’s memoir This Will All Be Over Soon expecting a collection of funny essays, in the mold of memoirs by Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling. And that would have been great! Even in the exceptionally strong cast the show enjoys right now, Strong is probably my favorite current SNL performer. She really commits to her bits, and she brings intelligent little touches to her characters that aren’t, strictly speaking, necessary, but which make them feel more lived-in and deliberate. Instead of a funny collection of essays, though, Over is a memoir about Strong’s experiences during the pandemic, and about the death of a beloved young cousin who was diagnosed with brain cancer. There’s nothing particularly novel or groundbreaking about Strong’s story or observations. Instead, it’s the diary of an intelligent and earnest midwestern woman who is scared and sad and uncertain about her future, and it completely won me over with its honesty and Strong’s courageous ability to repeatedly admit that she doesn’t have all the answers.

I’d heard that Facebook executives were quitting in advance of the publication of An Ugly Truth, which reports on the inner workings of Facebook, particularly over the last few tumultuous years. And Sheera Frenkel and Cecelia Kang do bring a lot of journalistic firepower to the book, getting inside of secret leadership meetings and revealing both Mark Zuckerberg’s complete inability to understand the harm he’s doing to the world and his total disgust at the world for not being suitably grateful for the gift of Facebook that he’s given to us. But it doesn’t feel revelatory at all, and there’s nothing damning about it that you didn’t already know: Facebook is terrible, and it’s bad for humanity, and it’s led by selfish, arrogant idiots. If you need your biases confirmed, this will do that, but it doesn’t contain the smoking gun that will finally convince Congress to do their duty and protect the American people from Zuckerberg’s rampaging monster.

Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch, a novel about a mother of a toddler who believes she’s turning into a dog, is a funny and sometimes disgusting book about the horrors and joys of being a mammal. The book gets better and better as the unnamed narrator’s delusions grow more and more outrageous, and it builds to a climax that, while not entirely satisfying, at least rings true. I very much enjoyed the audiobook, which is read by Cassandra Campbell. 

I had a good time with three thrillers on my vacation:

  • Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot, about a writing teacher who steals a novel idea from one of his students only to become an international sensation, is built on a lie of a premise: The idea that there’s a book concept so compelling, so foolproof, that anyone could craft a successful novel out of it. If you’re willing to suspend your belief and accept that little impossibility as true, the book is a very fun little yarn. If you’re someone who actually writes books, it will probably feel like particularly unrealistic sci-fi. 
  • Ragnar Jónasson’s The Mist opens with an old Icelandic couple settling in on their remote farm at the beginning of a brutal winter that will see them completely isolated from the rest of the world. Then there’s a knock on the door. It’s a mean little twisty story that will appeal to people, like me, who have an outsider’s fascination with Iceland and her people.
  • If you haven’t seen In a Lonely Place, the Humphrey Bogart movie adapted from Dorothy B. Hughes’s amazing noir novel, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a genuinely dark story that really lets Bogart explore his most antisocial impulses. I just read The Expendable Man, Hughes’s thriller about a Black man on a road trip who makes the mistake of picking up a young white woman hitchhiking by the side of the road in the early 1960s. When she eventually turns up dead, our protagonist is immediately labeled the prime suspect by a racist criminal justice system. I can’t believe this book hasn’t been turned into a movie, because it reads like a sleek film noir directed by a virtuouso. You barely read this book; instead, you watch it unfold.

An advance copy of Atticus Lish’s upcoming novel The War for Gloria reminded me of some of John Irving’s more successful early novels. It’s a big book about a young man, his dying mother Gloria, and the absent father who decides to brashly re-enter their lives. The father in this book is one of the great horrific literary fuckups, a know-it-all who is petty and small in frustratingly imaginative ways. I think the book could stand to be 75 pages shorter—I feel that about most books, these days, honestly—but I always had a hard time finding a good place to stop because Lish kept drawing me back in.

Harold Schechter and Eric Powell’s nonfiction comic “Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done?” is a biography of serial killer Ed Gein—the basis for both Psycho and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre—and as far as true crime comics go, it’s very compelling, well-researched, and elegantly structured. But I do take issue with the way Powell depicts Gein’s horrendous crimes—I think he illustrates too much of Gein’s butchery of human bodies, where it would have been more powerful—and probably responsible—to leave some of the gore to the reader’s imagination. At one point in particular, the frank goriness of the illustrations drag the book over into sensationalism, which feels like a waste of Powell and Schechter’s formidable talents. 

On the other end of the comics spectrum, Cheer Up!: Love and Pompoms is an absolutely adorable high school romance comic about a trans girl and a misanthropic young lesbian who bond—and fall in love—after joining the high school cheer team. Crystal Frasier, Val Wise, and Oscar O. Jupiter juggle a fairly large cast with an extensive history between them, and the reader never feels lost, preached to, or bored. And if you’re exhausted with romance stories in which one character has to become unlikable in order for the plot to progress, you’ll be happy to know that both of these leads are lovable all the way through. Charming as hell!

I must not have been in the mood for non-fiction because three books failed to work on me at all this month. 

  • Emily Anthes’s The Great Indoors, billed as an exploration of “The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness” doesn’t manage to live up to its promise. Instead, it’s a disjointed collection of essays about microbes, prisons, offices, and schools. Anthes is a good science writer, but the structure of this one failed to come together. It’s frustrating when a book’s premise is far more interesting than its execution, but in this case it honestly feels more like a marketing failure than an authorial one.
  • As a dog lover, I expected to fall in love with J.R. Ackerley’s classic memoir My Dog Tulip, but instead I was left cold by the author’s endless accounts of failed attempts at dog breeding. 
  • And the biggest disappointment for me was George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which is supposed to be a “master class” on writing paired with seven Russian short stories. I of course love a Gogol and a Tolstoy—but I expected more from Saunders, who doesn’t do much more in his analysis than stand in awe of the Russians, and point to the stories and say “ain’t that somethin’!” The book is adapted from Saunders’s writing classes, and I’m sad to report that I think I would hate his lectures. It’s rare that I’m bored by a how-to-write book, but Saunders’s limp analysis managed to exhaust me as a reader and leave me feeling much the way my worst college classes left me—bewildered and frustrated by the waste of my time and money.

That’s all for this month

Obie has the white nose. Wally has the dark nose.

Some of you have asked for an update about my rescue greyhounds, and I am thrilled to comply. My wife and I adopted Oberon (Obie) three years ago, and we adopted Wallace (Wally) in January of this year when the good people at Greyhound Pets Incorporated announced that they had a dog who was losing his sight and who needed to be placed in a home with a confident older dog before he went completely blind. 

Back in February, I wrote that “I wouldn’t say that Obie and Wally are good buddies yet—they’re more like amiable coworkers.” I’m happy to report that eight months in, their relationship has grown a lot stronger. Wally and Obie have bonded now, to the point that they each get a little stressed out if they’re separated for more than a few minutes. But the amazing thing to watch is how they look after each other. Perhaps because he’s nearly completely blind now, Wally barks a lot for a greyhound, and he can whip himself into a bit of a negative feedback loop, barking and whining and pacing if he hears a dog barking in the distance. When Wally gets really anxious, though, Obie basically acts like an idiot—prancing, leaping, running in circles—in an effort to get Wally to forget about whatever he’s fixating on and play with him. Most of the time this technique works, and Wally gets distracted running around with Obie and forgets about whatever set him off in the first place.

This is an act of empathy that I don’t think Obie was necessarily capable of before we got Wally. He was kind of a spoiled little prince for the first two years that we had him. But now he’s aware of another dog’s emotional state, and he moves to comfort that dog when he’s particularly distressed. That’s a pretty complex set of actions, and it indicates a deeper emotional life than I ever previously attributed to dogs. In short, I remain completely enthralled by these two fellows, and I can’t recommend dog ownership enough—the pandemic would have been a lot darker, had I not had these two handsome and elegant fart-machines to occupy my attention.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’re well.

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