What I’ve been reading and writing: December 2021

The fifth and final issue of Snelson: Comedy Is Dying, the dark satire about cancel culture and comedy that I created with genius artist Fred Harper, came out last week. If you want Snelson on your bookshelf, you’re in luck—the fancy-pants collected edition, which will include five bonus short Snelson comics and some neat behind-the-scenes looks at Fred’s artistic process, will be published this March. You can pre-order it now from your local comic shop, from your local indie bookstore, or from Bookshop or Powell’s.

I’m honored to report that David Sedaris wrote a blurb for the collected edition that is beyond generous. Here it is:

“The best satire in America is between these covers. So dark, so rich, and so beautifully, eerily rendered.”

Wow. And if that’s not enough sickening self-promotion for one email, I’m also absolutely thrilled to inform you that I was recently shortlisted for Best Comic Writer of 2021 by comics criticism site Broken Frontier. If you’re so inclined, the awards are a people’s choice kind of deal, and you can vote for them online through January 1st. Really, though, the honor is just in being nominated by Broken Frontier staff—you can find some of the best comics of the year on that list of nominees, and I’m proud to be included.

I’ve Been Writing

For Business Insider, I wrote about how large financial institutions prey upon their poorest customers to the tune of billions of dollars a year with overdraft fees. I also wrote about how the economic security that used to belong to the American middle class is now an indulgence that’s only enjoyed by the top 90th percentile of American wealth, and I explained why so-called “colorblind” economic theories which don’t take race into consideration are ultimately harmful for people of color.

For the Seattle Times, I wrote about Uppercase Bookshop, a beautiful mostly used bookstore in Snohomish that a mother-daughter team runs out of a log cabin. And I also contributed two blurbs to the Times‘s roundup of favorite books of the year.

I’ve been reading

I really liked Dream Girl, Laura Lippman’s novel about an old novelist in decline. It’s a story told by a man—a cross between Phillip Roth and Jonathan Franzen—who isn’t willing to accept his flaws, even as his mistakes come back to haunt him. The first half of the book is a gorgeously constructed character study of a basically terrible (or terribly basic) man, and in the second half of the book a murder plot introduces itself and the book turns into a gleefully dirty little thriller.

The premise of Everything and Less, Mark McGurl’s book-length essay about how Amazon has changed the content and structure of novels, is a brilliant one. Through novels including Fifty Shades of Grey and the comic erotica of Chuck Tingle, he makes a compelling case. Unfortunately, the book is rather aggressively academic, and McGurl crawls up his own argument to the point that it starts to feel like an obscure conspiracy theory. It’s a great topic for a long magazine article, but it’s annoying when stretched out into a whole book.

This year, a new musical about the making of Jaws called Bruce will debut at the Seattle Rep. (The name of the play is taken from the name of the mechanical shark used in the making of the movie, which was itself named after Steven Spielberg’s lawyer.) I just read the book that the musical is based on, a quickie making-of narrative by Jaws screenwriter Carl Gottlieb called Jaws Log. It’s a fun document of the frustrations and triumphs of making the world’s first summer blockbuster on a limited budget, though it’s hardly a warts-and-all scorcher. If you like show business memoirs, this is a funny and well-told, though relatively scandal-free, example of the form.

A few weeks after Stephen Sondheim died, my long-awaited library hold on the audio version of James Lapine’s Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created Sunday in the Park with George happened to come come through. Lapine was relatively unknown in the theater world when Sondheim partnered with him to make a musical about Georges Seurat’s famous painting. In the book, Lapine interviews Sondheim, original cast members including Mandy Patinkin, and others who had a hand in the production about their experiences during the musical’s rocky transition from workshop to Broadway. Like Jaws Log, it’s very reverential of the artwork in question’s success, but it’s similarly well-told—and it’s even more curious about the alchemy that created the production’s success. Jaws Log is the more fun book of the two, but Putting It Together is probably more useful for people looking for insight into the creative process.

I’ve loved all of Jess Walter’s novels, so it’s not surprising that I loved his latest novel, The Cold Millions. But I was completely blown away by this book, which is about the fight over labor unions in Spokane in the early 20th century. It’s far and away Walter’s best book, and it has to be one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s been out for a while now–just came out in paperback a couple months ago—but I’m glad I saved the book for a holiday season when I could really sit and take my time with it.

Charles Baxter’s The Sun Collective is a novel about an anti-capitalist cult that tears apart a midwestern family. While it’s not the best thing Baxter’s ever written, I really enjoyed the book because it felt so very of-the-moment, dealing as it does with homelessness, class issues, liberal self-reflection, and the growing gap between the haves and have-nots in American cities.

And if you’re looking for a good old-fashioned mystery series, the Reckless series of graphic novels by writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips will scratch your itch. The series follows a half-assed private detective named Ethan Reckless as he navigates the seedy underbelly of 1980s Los Angeles. I binge-read the first three books in the series—Reckless, Friend of the Devil, and Destroy All Monsters, in that order—over the holiday break, and now I have to wait four or five months for the next book. This is the most exciting series in comics right now, for my money—both in terms of storytelling skill and the publication format. I think more comics are going to start to be published this way, in the form of bulkier hardcover releases once or twice a year rather than slender monthly stapled comics, and I’m glad Phillips and Brubaker are showing comics creators what they can do with the format.

That’s all for this month

Because it’s the end of the year and the end of the year is always about lists, I thought I’d share ten of the books, movies, and TV shows released in 2021 that moved me most. These aren’t ranked lists—I don’t believe in “best” or “favorite” works of art—but they are pieces of art that I enjoyed and which provoked feelings and thoughts that stayed with me throughout the year.


(Note: If you’d like to learn more about any of these, I’ve written about all these books in previous issues of this newsletter.)

  • No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
  • The Leak by Kate Reed Petty and Andrea Bell
  • Secret Seattle by Susanna Ryan
  • Project Hall Mary by Andy Weir
  • The Contrarian by Max Chafkin’
  • Touching This Leviathan by Peter Wayne Moe
  • Cheer Up! Love and Pompoms by Crystal Frasier, Val Wise, and Oscar O. Jupiter
  • We Run the Tides by Vendela Vida
  • The Seeds by Ann Nocenti and David Aja
  • We Hereby Refuse by various artists

TV Shows

  • Reservation Dogs
  • The Great
  • Dopesick
  • Foundation
  • Ted Lasso
  • What We Do in the Shadows
  • Only Murders in the Building
  • Dickinson
  • Hacks
  • Pen15


  • Don’t Look Up
  • The Power of the Dog
  • The French Dispatch
  • The Green Knight
  • C’mon C’mon
  • Passing
  • Finch
  • Dune
  • Shiva Baby
  • Bo Burnham: Inside

Finally, with this email I’ve officially been doing this newsletter for one year. I want to thank you for reading and subscribing, and I especially want to thank everyone who takes the time to write back. I’ve really enjoyed creating a record of my writing, reading, and thoughts in this way—it’s a hell of a lot more intimate than a blog, and I’ve enjoyed experimenting with my writing voice to reflect that. I’m looking forward to year two, and I hope you are too.

Wishing a very happy and healthy new year to you and yours!

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