What I’ve been reading and writing: October 2021

First, and most importantly: If you live in Washington, have you voted yet? If you’re not in Washington, is there an election happening on Tuesday where you are? Please vote. I guarantee you that the person you hate most in the world is voting in this election. Don’t let their voice count more than yours. And may I suggest using the Progressive Voters Guide to help you navigate your ballot? 

Otherwise, it’s been—not gonna lie—an absolutely shit month. A lot of those reasons are personal and I don’t have anything of value to say about them here. But in general, the autumnal onset of darkness hit Seattle hard, and I’m acutely aware that there’s a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering in the world. 

Way down on the problem scale, both our dogs had minor medical emergencies in the past month. Obie was stung by a bee and had a terrible reaction, and Wally had a disgusting butt condition that took a lot of attention and care to resolve.Both the dogs have come out the other end of their challenges swimmingly.

And we’ve seen a few friends in the past few weeks who only met Wally back when we first adopted him in January, and they’re astonished by how far he’s come along. Wally was a loud, scared mess back in the early days—for good reason! He had to adjust to going blind and moving to a house for the first time in his life. Less than a year later, he’s a much calmer, intensely cuddly, very happy pup who seems satisfied with his new pack. Because I live with Wally, I missed that progression, and I’m happy to see it through the perspective of others. It’s always worth it when things are undeniably sucky to look back and see how far you’ve come with the people (and pets) who matter most to you.

Find me online

  • Snelson artist Fred Harper and I did our first-ever podcast interview together on Comics for Fun and Profit. This was actually the first time Fred and I had ever spoken in person, after five Snelson short stories and five full issues of Snelson. He’s got an amazing radio voice and he has all kinds of great stories about breaking into comics by accident in the 1990s. 

I’ve Been Writing

For the Seattle Times, I interviewed David Sedaris about why not being able to read in front of huge audiences during the pandemic was absolute torture for him.:

Well, I have a bottomless need for attention, and there’s not an amount that would fill the hole. When people say to me, ‘Oh my God, you’re going to, like, 70 cities. That must be awful.’ I only say, ‘No, it’s not, it’s actually great.’

When I finish a tour, I’m just counting the days until the next one. I can’t wait to be in a hotel again.

This interview was very close to being the first time the Seattle Times ever published the word “titties,” for whatever that’s worth, but a last-minute edit for space pushed a whole passage about orange Jell-O (and titties) out of the final cut.

I also wrote about Outsider Comics and Geek Boutique, a fashion-forward comic shop that has been gloriously upending the white male comics-shop paradigm for the past five years in Fremont. You can find some great comics recommendations from Outsider owner Jill Taplin in this pice.

For Business Insider I wrote about how the American social safety net successfully worked during the pandemic, and how we can reform it so that it works successfully all the time. I also wrote about why extractive big companies like Walmart and Amazon didn’t beat small businesses in the so-called free market of ideas, and how we can revive rural economies with investments in small businesses. And you already knew that rich people use philanthropy as a scam to avoid paying taxes, right?

I’ve been reading

Last month
, I wrote about a character in The Very Nice Box who felt unrealistic to me: “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.” At least one reader thought my comments meant that I believed trauma didn’t work like that in real life, and that’s a miscommunication—totally my fault.What I meant to say was that it felt like the protagonist’s particular trauma didn’t feel lived-in at all—that she and her complicated rituals seemed to pop into existence on the day the novel began.

This month, I read Melissa Broder’s excellent novel Milk Fed, and it got everything right about trauma that The Very Nice Box got wrong. The protagonist’s disordered eating is very complicated and it dominates her life, but you can feel the years and years of pain and emotional torment that constructed it—it feels very real, and lived-in, and honest. Then she falls in love (or lust) with a woman who works the counter at a frozen yogurt shop, and everything goes sideways. Milk Fed surely isn’t for everyone—I feel like the bookseller ringing me up was subtly trying to warn me not to buy the book—but I loved its weird eroticism and sideways feeling of hope.

Chana Porter’s The Seep is a novel about a different kind of alien invasion—one in which the aliens give humanity everything it’s ever wanted. After The Seep invade our bodies and minds, we can become anything, do anything, and live life however we want, in an eternal state of ecstasy. The book—and it’s a tiny little thing, really, more of an extended short story than a novel—focuses on a woman whose partner decides she wants to become a baby again and start life all over, which effectively is a spiritual form of divorce. I enjoyed this book, though I would have preferred a little more concrete detail and a little less Vandermeerian New Weird vagueness. (Vandermeer is great, but this book is focused on the particulars of a relationship and its aftermath, which feels jarringly at odds with the airy vagueness of the sci-fi.)

I’ve read every novel Colson Whitehead has ever written, either on or before publication date. Not to be all lit-hipster, but I’ve been a fan of his since I cracked open an advance reader copy of The Intuitionist, and I love all his books—I was a champion of his second novel, John Henry Days, and I love Apex Hides the Hurt, which most consider to be the least of his works. I’m happy to say that Whitehead’s newest novel, Harlem Shuffle, is a funny crime novel and an excellent literary construction, a heist narrative set in 1960s Harlem with a roguish protagonist and a magnificent cast of characters. I’m very excited that Whitehead has announced he’s writing a second book about some of the same characters set ten years later. It will be his first sequel, and I’m really looking forward to revisiting this world. He writes a great bastard, and the shady world of Harlem Shuffle is, happily, filled with bastards.

Dave Eggers’s latest novel, The Every, is a dystopian story about what happens when Google (or in this case The Circle, which is the thinly veiled Google-like company that figured in his previous satirical novel of the same name) buys Amazon. The book is a decidedly mixed cautionary tale about social media and over-reliance on technology, with some excellent observations about modern life nestled against some real groan-worthy cliches about the youth being too dang sensitive these days. I’m still glad I read the book, which is about a would-be corporate saboteur who wants to destroy The Every by pushing it into more and more invasive, sociopathic practices only to realize that the public loves her supposedly monstrous propositions. It’s very dark, a little too stuffy, and eagerly preaching to the choir. But at least it’s principled—even if it’s not successful in its arguments. 

Ragnar Jónassen’s mystery Snowblind is a quick little thriller about an uninteresting young detective who moves to a fascinating remote Icelandic town, and has to solve a murder there. As a mystery, it’s pretty generic, but as a study of rural Icelandic life it’s enjoyable enough. In better genre news, I read Olivia Waite’s charming lesbian romance novel The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanicsa soothing story about two willful women who fall in love in early 1800s England, when the field of astronomy is just beginning to resemble its modern form. The leads have great chemistry together, they experience just enough hardship on the path to romance to keep things interesting, and Waite clearly understands the period, even as she brings a welcome modern sense of social justice to the story.

The Contrarian, Max Chafkin’s biography of Silicon Valley billionaire (and killer of Gawker) Peter Thiel, is a damning account of the life of one of PayPal and Facebook’s early investors. Thiel started out as one of the most aggressive libertarians in Silicon Valley, and he turned into one of Donald Trump’s most rabid supporters. The book is crammed full of hilarious anecdotes about some of the world’s richest people, who are widely mistaken for some of the smartest people in the world. (There’s an anecdote about Elon Musk struggling to understand why anyone would write a check for totals that they don’t have in their account that actually had me laughing out loud. The wealthy South African investor in a digital payments company never once took checking fraud into account in his business plan.)

Chafkin does a decent job of keeping the camera squarely on Thiel, though I think he’s a little too forgiving of his subject. For instance, he reports on Thiel’s well-known hatred of colleges and his affinity for college dropouts, but he never recognizes the contradiction that Thiel only seems to be enamored with dropouts from Ivy League schools—meaning he still buys into the status that elite schools confer, even as he praises dropouts from those institutions. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Thiel has made a career out of disregarding norms and disrespecting institutions at the same time that he profits from those same norms and institutions. He hates government, but he makes billions from government contracts. I loathe him even more now than I did before reading the book—and I didn’t think that was possible.

That’s All for this month

When I was a teenager, all my stoner nerd friends were obsessed with the Dune series, and all my straight-edge nerd friends were obsessed with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. I must confess that I struggled with both series for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I find it very hard to get engrossed in stories that don’t take place on Earth—or at least that don’t have recognizable Earthlings as main characters. For another thing, I have a limited patience for world-building when it doesn’t figure directly into the plot of a story—I’m always more annoyed than impressed when an author writes ten thousand years of sociopolitical history as a backdrop to a fairly straightforward sci-fi novel.

So is it heretical of me to admit that I greatly enjoyed both the new film adaptation of Dune and what I’ve seen of the new Foundation TV series? As a lifelong book guy, I perhaps should stick to the company line of “the movie is never anywhere near as good as the book,” and of course both adaptations sacrifice a great deal of the text in the translation process to live-action.

But both of these intelligent, stylish adaptations successfully incorporate their world-building in service to the narrative, and that is exactly my style. We learn as much about the foreign worlds as we need to know, exactly when we need to know it. I’m sure the purists are complaining about all the sins of adaptation in forums across the internet, but to me it sure feels like a new golden age of science fiction in film and TV. I’m a sucker for stories about smart characters trying to navigate through moral dilemmas caused by enormous systemic failures, and both Dune and Foundation deliver exactly that. 

I hope you’re adjusting to the autumnal darkness with at least a little more grace than I am. See you next month.

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