What I’ve been reading and writing: January 2022

Back when I blogged multiple times a day for a living, I loved a good story about some crank trying to ban a book in her kid’s school library. The parent in question would always have some dumb quote that I could ridicule, I could talk about how great the book they were trying to ban is, and the author would likely have some well-written comment about the importance of freedom of speech that could cap the post off. Boom: Aggregation complete.

It’s kind of an open secret that authors used to dream that someone would try to ban their book somewhere, because those attempts at censorship would always inspire a nice big bump in sales. Occasionally, depending on how much media attention a parent would get for their crusade, a backlist title would even wind up on the bestseller list after a few years of relative obscurity. Book-banning was kind of cute back then, a little literary cottage industry built on the backs of a few vocal idiots.

It’s not cute anymore.

This week, a Tennessee school board voted to ban the teaching of Art Spiegelman’s Maus. This follows an all-out push to ban the works of Black authors including Toni Morrison from curricula and school libraries around the country. Officials are working hard to ban LGBTQ-themed materials from school libraries and classrooms around the country—including in my home state of Washington.

This current book-banning craze is entirely different from the kinds of bans I used to write about on a monthly basis. How, you may ask? For one thing, the calls are coming from inside the house. These aren’t some random oversensitive parents or lone wolf staffers calling for the books to be banned: They’re the school boards themselves. The Tennessee board in question voted unanimously, 10 to 0, to ban Maus. And if the school boards themselves aren’t behind the banning, then the parents are in highly organized groups who know how to play the media into believing that they represent a majority of parents in the area. This is a planned, rehearsed action, it’s spreading around the country, and it’s working.

One wealthy evangelical Christian talking about how Kurt Vonnegut is a Satanist is a clown, a punchline to a bad joke. Entire school boards banning the teaching of slavery and the Holocaust in public schools is a white supremacist fascist movement. When you work to erase a nation’s history, you are engaging in fascist behavior. And here’s the thing about being a fascist—it doesn’t matter if your intentions are good, or if you have Black/Jewish/LGBTQ friends, or if you’re just concerned about your child feeling uncomfortable. If you behave like a Nazi, if you apologize for a Nazi, if you’re friends with a Nazi, you’re a Nazi. Full stop.

I can’t lie and pretend that I’m feeling very hopeful about the future of this country. In the very best-case scenario, I believe we’re looking at a lot of bloodshed and struggle before this fever breaks. I don’t even want to type out the worst-case scenario here because I think it would still sound insane to the general public. But this is where my head is at right now.

I’ve been writing

I’m pretty happy with how my Seattle Times profile of Phinney Books came out, and it seems to have gotten a fair amount of attention. Phinney Books and its sister store Madison Books are, in my opinion, the best bookstores for browsing in Seattle right now, by which I mean I’m very likely to walk out of the store with a huge stack of small-press books that I didn’t even know existed before I walked in. A big part of that has to do with Phinney By Post, their amazing subscription program that delivers one little-known but beautifully written book to your mailbox every month.

I also interviewed Booker Prizewinning author Bernardine Evaristo about her new memoir Manifesto for the Seattle Times, in time for her talk at Seattle Arts and Lectures. She’s a bold and original thinker, and I very much appreciated the way she allowed her book to reject the classic memoir narrative structure—it’s a writing manual, a gossipy essay about sex and identity, and a manifesto for changing the world, all under one cover.

We all know the Federal Reserve has the power to make money—that meme from a while back about money-printer going brrrrrrr is pretty famous by now—but at Insider, I wrote about the way that the Fed distributes the money that it makes. Turns out, they just give it to Wall Street, which sucks! I offer a couple of ideas for better uses for all that money, including giving it to ordinary Americans.

And I wrote about the shameful fact that the federal minimum wage is still stuck at $7.25 per hour, and why that matters even though much of the country has moved far beyond that embarrassingly low amount. But the thing is that $7.25 is not even technically America’s minimum wage: The lowest wage an employer can pay in America right now is $2.15 an hour, which is the tipped minimum wage. I wrote about tipping’s unbelievably racist roots and why we should abolish the tipped minimum wage.

I’ve been reading

My coworker Annie recommended a French thriller by Hervé Le Tellier just out in paperback called The Anomaly. She said she started reading it and couldn’t put the book down until she finished it, and damn if the same thing didn’t happen to me. I bought The Anomaly at Third Place Books at 9 am on a Saturday, walked home, and I finished the thing by 4 pm. If you’re in the mood for a great page-turner, I would recommend not even reading the back jacket copy of The Anomaly—just know that it’s a supernatural or sci-fi thriller about a big cast of international characters, and prepare to be surprised with how the story unfolds. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty damn fun.

Benjamin Lorr makes no secret that his book The Secret Life of Groceries owes a deep debt to Eric Schlosser’s great fast-food muckraking expose Fast Food Nation–Lorr adoringly name-checks Schlosser several times in the book. And while Groceries doesn’t quite do for grocery stores what Nation did for fast food restaurants, it is still a fascinating journey into the “dark miracle” of the modern American grocery store. There’s some disgusting food trivia in there, but that’s not even the most shocking part of the book—that would be the part where Lorr unveils the actual slavery that still takes place in the international fishing industry. Lorr is a gifted writer, but he does overwrite at times—a few passages felt a little too voice-y, like aspiring gonzo journalism written by an overeager J-school student.

Empire of Pain is exactly as horrifying and maddening as my friend Davida promised it would be, but boy does Patrick Radden Keefe make his expose of the Sackler family’s many crimes against humanity a compulsively readable experience. The story tracks multiple generations of the pharmaceutical empire, and Keefe’s narration alternates between gossipy, heartbreaking, enraging, and informative. Even if you think you know the full story behind the opioid epidemic—say, you watched the excellent Dopesick miniseries on Hulu—you’ll still want to read this book to understand the full enraging story of how wealthy people literally get away with mass murder in America. I don’t know how anyone could read this book and come away with the idea that our economic system doesn’t require top-to-bottom reform.

Tamara Shopsin’s Laserwriter II is apparently a big nostalgia trip of a novel for people who were into computers back in the 1990s. I was a late adopter—I didn’t own a laptop of my own until like 2002 and I wasn’t really online at all until 2001—but I still enjoyed the book, which is about aimless young people working at a computer repair shop in New York City. Even though I don’t know what the characters are talking about a good fifth of the time, the weird specificity around 1990s technology provides a compelling backdrop, and the book never feels like it wastes your attention.

I’ve read a lot of Terry Pratchett, but I haven’t read all of Terry Pratchett. That means I occasionally have the lucky opportunity to read a Terry Pratchett Discworld book that is entirely new to me. This month, I read Making Money, a Pratchett novel set in his satirical fantasy realm that’s all about money and the economy. It’s not my favorite of his books, but he’s such an entertaining writer on the molecular level that just from a pure craft standpoint you can’t help but occasionally sit back in awe at a passage.

Termination Shock, Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, is about climate collapse and it begins with a queen crashing a plane and meeting a man who kills wild boars for a living—which is to say it starts very strong. However, the book kind of lags for a big portion of the middle. I have to say that if you only have the time or the energy to read one climate-collapse-themed sci-fi novel, it should be Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future. Also, I can’t be the only person to recognize that Stephenson tends to write books featuring billionaires as leading characters these days. And while he doesn’t idolize the billionaires, he also doesn’t really come to terms with the fact that it’s impossible for someone to amass tens or hundreds of billions of dollars of wealth without deeply exploiting a whole lot of people. Stephenson is one of our best contemporary writers, but I really believe that unless he comes to terms with the economics of exploitation in his work, he’s in danger of becoming a kind of sci-fi court jester for the oligarchy.

that’s all for this month

Phew! This was an intense one. Maybe let’s close with a little bit of dog news, shall we?

January was a big month for our two greyhounds. At the beginning of the month, we marked one full year with Wallace, the blind rescue we picked up from Greyhound Pets Inc., and four full years with Oberon, the big princely fella we adopted from Royal Hounds. When we first adopted Wally, I wrote in this newsletter that he and Obie had the demeanor of “friendly coworkers.” Now, they are absolutely inseparable. Wally relies on Obie as his seeing-eye dog, and Obie’s ego really thrives on having a younger dog to follow him around.

As Obie did during his first year with us, Wally has softened a lot—he’s learned that he can come up to us and ask for cuddles and comfort whenever he needs it, and that seems to have created an emotional stability in him that he didn’t have when we adopted him, basically, straight off the racing track. Their days are full of walks, snacks, naps, meals, and pets, with the occasional trip to the weekly greyhound run at the dog park in Steilacoom to keep them socialized and engaged with the world.

If you’re in a position to adopt a dog, I really couldn’t recommend the experience enough. They’re expensive, and they take up a lot of your time, and they generally require the kind of stability that many people aren’t able to provide. But dog ownership has been one of the great and consistent joys of my life—learning how to adapt to these non-human mammals and communicate with them has opened my mind in a lot of very important ways. I don’t know how I would have gotten through the pandemic without them.

Wally, it turns out, is not a big fan of snow.
Did I just refer to Obie as “princely?” Hmmm. (Also, we got him a new collar shortly after this picture was taken because I hadn’t realized how grotty the old collar has become until I saw it in the picture.)

I hope your month has gone well, and that you’re not in as dark a mental space as I am. There are lots of wonderful things in the world, and I hope your life is full of them.

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