What I’ve been reading and writing: November 2021

Earlier this month, for the first time in almost two years, I double-masked up and went to one of the two big chain movie theaters in downtown Seattle. And I want to be positive about rejoining life after lockdowns, but it was an objectively terrible experience.Before the pandemic, I went to the movies a lot—roughly once a week or so. Since the last pre-pandemic movie I attended in March of 2020 (a screening of the excellent Portrait of a Lady on Fire) I had forgotten how much of the experience of going to a corporate movie theater just outright sucks.

First, you get your backpack checked by an apathetic teenager, in case you’ve forgotten that mass shootings regularly happen in America. Then you sit through an infomercial preroll, six obnoxious advertisements for cell phone carriers, a Google ad, and Matt Damon shilling cryptocurrency with a monologue about how history hates losers.And then the blockbuster I attended just wasn’t worth my full attention for more than two hours—it was a dumb, predictable, boring experience that was practically designed to be half-watched by someone sitting on their couch, scrolling around on their phone.Now that I’ve fallen out of the habit of going to the movies, I can see that the act of going to a corporate movie theater is depressing.

Happily, the big chains and blockbuster movies aren’t my only option. I’ll go out of my way to attend more thoughtful movies at independent movie houses from here on out—places like The Ark Lodge, The Beacon, Majestic Bay, and the Admiral Theater, which place the moviegoer over quarterly shareholder statements.

But I wonder how many of these experiences I’m going to have in the months and years to come—a return to normal, only to realize how unpleasant normal really was. Think of all the mind-numbing waiting in line I didn’t do over the last couple of years—the security-theater screenings I didn’t have to go through, the queasy corporate sponsorship announcements I didn’t have to tolerate, the awkwardness of liminal spaces that I didn’t experience. How many returns to normalcy am I going to experience in the future, only to be let down by the banality of it all?I realize this may sound ungrateful. I have my health, and I’m very lucky to work for an employer who isn’t making my coworkers and I rush back into a workplace, so I’m the last person who should complain about any of this.

But I also suspect that I’m not alone in feeling an emotional drag as The Great Letdown gets underway, and I wonder if anything positive can come from this crushing disappointment. Maybe going out in public doesn’t have to be a disappointing, invasive, uncomfortable experience? Can we build a better way to be a human in crowded public spaces?

(Note: I wrote this introduction before Omicron Variant panic started spreading across social media over the long weekend. I’d like to remind you that the best thing you can do right now is keep wearing masks indoors, get your vaccinations and boosters, and do not panic. The smartest people in the field are gathering information and until they update us, the truth is that we know very little—but at least we know what we don’t know, which is a way better place to be than the uncertainty we felt in those first days of March of 2020.)

Find me online

In an episode of Pitchfork Economics earlier this month, my coworker Goldy and I interviewed superstar journalist Sam Quinones about his new book on the synthetic opioid crisis, The Least of Us. Quinones was among the first to sound the alarm on America’s opioid crisis (and to spotlight the Sackler family’s responsibility for the crisis) and his new book talks about why fentanyl will likely be even worse for America than opioids. It’s a striking piece of journalism from someone who clearly loves doing the work. (I also recommend the Hulu dramatized miniseries about Oxycontin, Dopesick, which is predictable but informative, and packed wall-to-wall with great acting, particularly from Michael Keaton as a small-town doctor and  Michael Stuhlbarg, who correctly plays Richard Sackler as a hissing vampiric supervillain.)

I also wanted to call your attention to a piece on the website Comics XF in which two comics critics—Will Nevin and Cassie Tongue—engage in a dialogue about three issue of the comic I created with Fred Harper, Snelson: Comedy Is Dying. Tongue and Nevin don’t love everything about the book, but they thoughtfully engage with it and really drill down into what Fred and I are trying to say with it, which is really all that any writer can ask for. In fact, I’d go so far as to call this a dream come true—the kind of intelligent criticism that most writers never get at any point in their careers. I’m so grateful to Nevin and Tongue, and to Comics XF for their attention.

I’ve been writing

For Business Insider, I wrote about how friction-free mail-in voting transformed me from a pretty good voter into someone who votes in absolutely every single election. I also wrote a piece about how the tax code advantages white families and disadvantages Black families that turned my inbox into an orgy of racist whitesplaining for a weekend. 

My most recent BI piece is an examination of the work of a Seattle expert in homelessness, Josephine Ensign, and her clear-eyed analysis of what American cities need to do to really end homelessness once and for all. 

And for the Seattle Times, I profiled Chris Jarmick, the co-founder and owner of Kirkland independent bookstore BookTree, which is a great used and new bookshop that can brag about its amazing kids’ section and the great personalized advice for readers that Jarmick offers.

I’ve been reading

It’s probably fitting that my enjoyment of Lisa Halliday’s novel Asymmetrywas asymmetrical. The novel is broken into three sections, and the first, longest, story—a novella, really, about a young woman who enters into a relationship with a very old, celebrated novelist—is by far the most interesting segment. The second and third sections continue the story began in the first, but from different perspectives that don’t feel nearly as compelling as the story of the relationship. I’m glad I read the book, but I wonder if I might have enjoyed a standalone novella of the first story even more.

Bewilderment, the latest novel from Richard Powers, is a sly and emotional work of science fiction that just pushes out a little bit on the edge of what is scientifically possible right now. About a father and son who are trying to learn how to be a family after a significant emotional loss, it’s an engrossing story, but I have mixed feelings about the very end of the book—no spoilers—and I’m curious if I’m the only reader who felt it ended too abruptly.

I enjoyed two new books by great nonfiction writers this month—Fuzz, by Mary Roach, and On Animals by Susan Orlean. The former is a collection of essays grouped around the idea of what happens when animals break human laws, and the latter is a collection of short essays about animals. I don’t think these books count as major works for either Roach or Orlean—they’re pretty light—but sometimes you just want to read some beautiful, funny writing about animals.

A Touch of Jen is a debut novel by Beth Morgan about a young couple that have an unnatural fixation on a minor Instagram influencer. They insinuate themselves into the influencer’s circle of friends, and then everything goes screwy. It’s an uneven but well-written exploration of what social media is doing to our fantasies, and our lives.

The word “harrowing” gets used a lot to describe books, but Donald Antrim’s One Friday in April: A Story of Suicide and Survival is an undeniably harrowing book. It’s a first-person account of Antrim’s suicide attempt in 2006, and his long and rocky road back to sustainable mental health. It’s a slender book—I white-knuckled my way through the whole thing in a night—and it serves as an even-more-raw companion to William Styron’s excellent autobiographical exploration of depression, Darkness Visible. I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who is currently Going Through Some Things, emotionally, but it could serve as a resource for people who are currently living with people who are Going Through Some Things.

Kristen Radtke’s Seek You is a collection of essays about modern American loneliness told in comic book form. I really like the way Radtke addresses non-fiction comics—for the most part, she draws one image per page to illustrate her point, allowing her to alternately illustrate some hard-to-visualize concepts in her prose and also enhance the emotional argument with illustrations, like a montage of pro-Trump yard signs in a section about what loneliness is doing to the American psyche. I hope dozens more cartoonists are working on books like this, because this style of pictorial essay should become a robust sub-segment of the American comics genre.

Lauren Groff’s Matrix is a weird and wonderful novel about a nun who tries to make sense of a confusing and dangerous world by taking control of her nunnery and protecting her sisters through elaborate measures. Based on a true story from medieval times, Matrix is a bizarre, moving story of faith, devotion, and mortality.

That’s all for this month

As you may know, I go for long walks around the Seattle area, usually on Saturdays. Earlier this month, I found two enormous piles of peeled oranges in an office park in Renton that borders on the Black River Riparian Forest. This was a mystery that captured my interest: no peels were anywhere in sight, the oranges were otherwise unmolested, and the large piles were carefully constructed to the point that they were almost pyramids. 

I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who thought these oranges were worthy of investigation. Garrett Kelly and Jeremy Puma of the delightful Seattle-based supernatural investigation site Liminal Earth went and checked out the pile of oranges and made a video documenting their weird adventures on that same site. 

Do I believe in the supernatural? Absolutely not. But I acknowledge the weirdness of finding two big stacks of uneaten, meticulously peeled oranges on a random walk, and I invite any and all possible explanations for the weirdness because I go on long walks exactly for this kind of meandering, fanciful thinking. I’m glad Liminal Earth is there to join me when my wanderings get weird.

And if you’re an urban walker, I highly recommend the trail that runs through the Riparian Forest, for what it’s worth—it’s gorgeous, it connects to a great trail that runs all the way south through Tukwilla down to Auburn, and it’s quiet. Don’t let potentially demonic piles of citrus fruit distract you from the beauty of nature.

Finally, let me just confirm for the record that I got a booster shot with absolutely no aftereffects save a sore arm, and the process was quick and efficient and I highly recommend it.

I hope your holidays are proceeding well and that you’re staying safe, not panicking, and getting boosted. As a gift for reading this far, please enjoy this gif of Obie and Wally, who are feeling a little skeptical about all this rain we’ve been having:

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