What I’ve been writing and reading: September 2021

I want to call your attention to a letter that my friend Tim Lennon, director of LANGSTON, recently wrote to the Seattle City Council. Tim was responding to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s surprise appointment of a director to Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture—read more about that at Publicola—but even if you don’t live in Seattle I think you should read this part:

Seattle’s cultural sector was the first to shut down due to the pandemic and many of us have yet to even partially reopen or find work. The challenges of affordability, equitable access to resources, and the volatility of public and philanthropic support our sector was facing even before the pandemic made working in our industries increasingly tenuous. The last year and half of pandemic closures and cancellations only accelerated the impact of those trends. My fellow culture workers have put in impossibly long hours to find creative ways to keep our workers employed, to get our doors open again, to keep creating, and to keep meeting our communities’ cultural, spiritual and material needs. 

The sad truth is that over the last two decades, even the most liberal American cities have failed to adequately support arts and culture. The arts is widely regarded by our local elected leaders as something people do in their spare time when they’re finished working at their real jobs, and I worry that as we emerge from the pandemic the arts will continue to be treated as a nonessential expense.

But art is what makes cities work. It’s the musicians and artists and writers who define a place and give it value. When I was a teenager growing up in a small town in Maine, I didn’t dream of moving to Seattle because it’s where Microsoft is headquartered—I wanted to move here because I loved Nirvana and Fantagraphics Books and Jason Lutes’s amazing comic Jar of Fools. And it’s the art that’s kept me committed to this city, more than 20 years after moving here.

Even before this pandemic, it was impossible for a beginning artist to afford to live in any of America’s biggest cities without a pre-existing financial cushion of some sort. In the next couple of years, we’re going to see some significant reprioritizing of values as cities and states recover from the pandemic. I worry that our leaders might prioritize boundless economic growth at the expense of cultural health. The fact that Mayor Durkan has proposed turning the appointed position of an arts director into a part-time job when it has always been a full-time position only justifies my concern.

If elected leaders push organizations like LANGSTON (and Short Run, and Hugo House, and the Vera Project, and so on) to the margins, I’ll have to reconsider my commitment to Seattle. I want to live in a place that values arts as an essential part of daily life.

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Holy cow—I’m doing two virtual events in October? I hope I don’t sprain anything.

First up, comics journalist Dan Campos asked me to take part in a virtual panel on October 12th to discuss whether the current ongoing apocalypse will change the way we read and write about fictional apocalypses in the future. I’ve been thinking on this subject a lot, and I’m really excited to have this conversation. But I’m positively giddy that my current favorite comics writer, Mark Russell, is taking part in this panel. He’ll have plenty to talk about, considering that he’s currently publishing a great post-apocalyptic comic called Not All Robots that was written, I believe, during the pandemic.

And second, I’m doing a neat virtual event produced by the good folks at Elliott Bay Book Company on  October 29th: I’ll be interviewing historian Timothy Snyder and artist Nora Krug​, who worked together to adapt Snyder’s essential little book On Tyranny into comic book form. If you went into a bookstore during the Trump presidency, you absolutely saw Snyder’s slender book on the shop’s bestseller list, and for good reason: Snyder has the rare ability to synthesize the current moment into the flow of history in a way that is neither hyperbolic nor boring. Krug’s adaptation of the book brings a new urgency to the text, and I can’t wait to talk to them about how it came to be and what the process of translation from prose to comic was like.

I’ve been writing

At the Seattle Times, I wrote about Joie des Livres, a beautiful little bookstore that popped up on the Washington coast a couple years ago and is rapidly growing into its role as the only new bookstore for many miles around. It’s in the middle of a weird expensive pre-fab urbanist beach town called Seabrook that didn’t exist at all 20 years ago. Seabrook used to kind of creep me out, but Joie des Livres makes it feel much more like a real place.

And in my Business Insider column, I wrote about how the federal government might be able to regain the trust of its people, why cutting pandemic benefits too soon is a terrible idea, and why the snack food industry has gone through so many strikes recently. I also wrote about “Right-to-Work” laws, which sound like a positive thing but are in fact a way to lower worker pay and shrink bargaining power.

I’ve been reading

Because I’m apparently a masochist, I listened to the audiobook of I Alone Can Fix It, Carol Leonnig & Philip Rucker’s account of Donald Trump’s “Catastrophic Final Year” in office. To be clear: I’m not saying that everything is perfect now, but holy cow, I’m shocked that I had already started to forget exactly how frantic everything was when Trump was in office. I knew it was bad, but I forgot that pit-of-the-stomach churn that I used to feel every morning when I opened Twitter. It’s interesting, too, that General Mark Milley appears to be a major source for this book, given that Bob Woodward’s new book about the same period of time has a lot more information about what Milley was actually up to during this period. Fix It is almost certainly the story Milley wanted you to hear, but it’s certainly not the full story.

Speaking of how frantic recent years have been, Hermione Hoby’s novel Virtue is set during the frantic last couple of years, and it’s a book that tries to cram all of America’s social conversations into a single narrative. The story follows a young man as he becomes a low-level editorial intern at a storied literary magazine in New York City, and the first third of the book effectively lampoons the self-importance of the magazine and its staff. But then the narrative takes him to a farmhouse where he becomes entangled in the married life of an older couple, and the story loses some steam. It’s unfortunate, too, that one major Black character in the story has to stand in for every major race-related issue of the past four years—she becomes our narrator’s lens into subjects ranging from protests to police violence to tokenism in the arts, and she carries so much weight that she loses any sense of autonomy by the time the book reaches its climax. Still, it’s an ambitious debut novel and I’m excited to see what Hoby does next.

Michelle Zauner’s memoir Crying In H Mart is worthy of the accolades it’s received. Zauner, who records music as Japanese Breakfast, writes about her family—especially her mother—with tremendous sensitivity, and her complicated love for her mother’s Korean family is so specific that it feels universal. A relatively quiet and small story, but one that stuck with me.

The Very Nice Box, by Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman, is a novel about a woman who designs products for an IKEA-like company. It’s very mannered. The main character is emotionally wounded in the improbable way that only protagonists of novels are emotionally wounded—she never deviates from her perfectly attuned daily schedule, and nothing ever interferes with the little cocoon in which she’s hiding from her trauma, until the inciting incident of the book throws her years-long uninterrupted torpor into chaos. It feels less like a novel about real people and more like a pair of authors playing with stiff figures in a doll house. Regardless, I enjoyed the ideas, symbols, and themes of the book, even if I never emotionally identified with the characters.

Billy Summers is the best novel that Stephen King has written in decades. That sounds like high praise, but please know that I’ve loathed all of Stephen King’s novels since, maybe, The Green Mile? (I haven’t read all of them, but boy was Under the Dome terrible.) It’s the story of a hit man who pretends to be a writer as a cover for his latest assassination, but he slowly falls in love with writing and so he gradually learns how to be human again. The book reads more like Elmore Leonard than Stephen King in parts, which I mean as a huge compliment. Readers should be warned that there are plenty of King-isms here: His trademark fatphobia is on full display, and he addresses the trauma of sexual assault with all the stunted empathy and understanding that a well-meaning Boomer man can muster. But I had a really good time with this book, and was shocked by how present King felt throughout, with none of the sloppiness that clogged up most of his recent books.

Robert J. Sawyer is a Canadian sci-fi writer who writes about Big Ideas but doesn’t take them too seriously. I loved his book Calculating God, which is about aliens who show up on Earth one day demanding to talk to a paleontologist. Together, the aliens and our protagonist try to unwind a mystery that might uncover the true meaning of life. If you like old-school sci-fi that doesn’t get too wrapped up in making the high concept feel realistic, this might be for you—though you should be warned that the ending is super-rushed.

I read Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None for the first time, and it was a lot of fun—but my favorite part of the book was Christie’s introduction, which can be succinctly paraphrased as “This book was really hard to write, you guys, and I did a really great job with it.” Here it is:

You do you, Agatha!

That’s all for this month

Like many of you, I’ve been watching a lot of TV. And TV is really good these days! I’ve enjoyed Nine Perfect Strangers and Ted Lasso and The White Lotusand all the same shows that everyone’s talking about. (Except I just can’t get into Succession, and I’ve tried a couple times; I’m unable to find the appeal of watching a bunch of terrible rich people behaving terribly.)

But I was blown away recently by the FX comedy Reservation Dogs. It’s a half-hour comedy that’s actually funny, and it stars a cast of young Indigenous actors who have charisma to spare. (Seriously—any one of the four main leads could headline their own Marvel movie tomorrow if they had to.) It’s well-written, well-acted, and addictive as hell, with each episode advancing the story in important ways and no filler episodes to speak of. Each episode is stuffed with satire and a little bit of magic and gallons of heart.

It’s also noteworthy that ReservationDogs is a show about people who are poor, who in fact have to worry about money all the time. All the shows I mentioned above, and I think the majority of shows on network television, are about people who never have to worry about how they’re going to pay rent, or where the next meal is coming from, or how they’re going to materially improve their lives. TV has always over-represented rich people, but it seems like poor people have all but vanished from TV over the course of my lifetime. it’s great to watch a show that takes place in the real world, where everything isn’t sterile and extravagantly bland for a change.

The first season of Reservation Dogs is 10 episodes long and it’s all on Hulu now. I hope it runs for another six seasons, and that’s why I’m asking you to watch it, too.

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