What I’ve been reading and writing: February 2022

As I’ve written multiple times (sorry) the collected edition of the comic I created with artist Fred Harper, Snelson: Comedy Is Dying, will be published on March 15th. I don’t have any celebratory Ides of March bookstore readings or events on the calendar to mark the publication for a couple of reasons:

  1. Virtual readings really bum me out. I’m not the most eloquent speaker in the world in the best situations, but I’m really bad on Zoom, where the slight lag throws me for a loop.
  2. With state mask restrictions ending and the nation seemingly under a mass delusion that pretending coronavirus is a thing of the past will somehow make coronavirus go away, I don’t feel comfortable doing an in-person reading.

I hope that in coming months, I’ll be able to do something to celebrate the book’s release. I’m proud of it–I’m especially giddy over Fred’s work—and I’d like to get people together again. But I think another spike in cases is likely as regulations fade away and the weather—at least in this part of the country—won’t allow us to properly ventilate our indoor spaces with fresh air. I refuse to be the reason a bunch of people get sick, so please feel free to celebrate my book’s release in your own way, safely and responsibly.

I’ve been writing

I wrote about Seattle’s (current) newest bookstore, The Wise Owl Books & Music, for the Seattle Times. It’s a small space in the Tangletown neighborhood, and it was born from a mother’s secret wish. When Christina Gilbreath’s mother passed away a few years ago, she left behind about 40 boxes of used books that she was keeping to fulfill her long-held dream of opening a bookstore. Gilbreath hadn’t known about her mother’s dream, but it echoed her own dream of one day opening a record store, and so she decided to make both dreams come true with Wise Owl. I can’t wait to see what this bookstore becomes as the neighborhood begins to shape its stock and Gilbreath’s plans for expansion take root.

Unions are more popular in America right now than they’ve been since the 1950s. But union membership is basically at an all-time low. President Biden, our most labor-friendly president since FDR, just made a big first step toward allowing federal workers to unionize, but I wrote in Insider that he can still do more to encourage the labor movement. Also: Did you know that employer-provided health care is a scam? It’s true, and it’s not just a scam for Americans—it’s a scam for employers, too.

I also wrote about why corporate price increases have less to do with inflation and more to do with price-gouging. That piece was retweeted by Elizabeth Warren, which was pretty damn exciting for me, since she’s one of the few national politicians I actively admire:

Friends, I actually made a little yipping noise when I saw this tweet.
Friends, I actually made a little yipping noise when I saw this tweet.

I’ve been reading

Last summer, I read and enjoyed a new Stephen King novel for the first time in ages. That novel in question was Billy Summers. This month, I read the novel Stephen King published before that, a thin paperback original titled Later, and I enjoyed it even more than Billy Summers. This is a remarkable late-career turn from a writer who had become (with semi-recent titles like Under the Dome and Cell) a parody of himself. Later is a short and dirty crime thriller about a kid who can see ghosts, and it’s got everything you like about King—the creepy images that stick with you; the world-weary, working class characters; the plots that seem somehow feel realistic in their ridiculousness. If you can grit your teeth and tolerate King’s relentless and inexcusable tendency toward fat-phobia, which pops up in the last fifth of this book, I endorse Later.

If you’re a fan of the excellent afterlife-themed comedy The Good Place, I highly recommend the audio version of Good Place creator Michael Schur’s new philosophical exploration How to Be Perfect. Virtually the entire cast ofThe Good Place make guest appearances on the recording, giving the book the feel of a pleasant afterword to the series. It’s a kind of crash course into what it means to be an ethical person, with pit stops at just about every major philosopher you’ll encounter in a Philosophy 101 course, and it’s a fun and funny way to while away time on a road trip. Schur’s book isn’t, well, perfect—for some reason, he conflates the Overton Window with the slippery slope argument, and he also bafflingly at one point says that nobody would question whether Jeff Bezos and other billionaires deserve their fortunes—but Schur is an earnest and curious narrator, and the book is full of little ethical thought experiments you can toss around with friends.

Libba Bray’s YA novel Beauty Queens is a satire about the contestants in a Miss Teen USA-type pageant crash-landing on a desert island and then fighting for survival. It’s a little too long, but the book is riddled with over-the-top product placements for cosmetics in the form of footnotes to the survival narrative, and I laughed out loud at the satire a few times. I’m so glad that books like this are available to teenagers now from major publishers like Scholastic. When I was a kid, you basically jumped from Ramona Quimby to Breakfast of Champions, and now YA novels like Beauty Queens provide more of a bridge between those two extremes.

Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed is not as wickedly entertaining as the first book in the series, An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good,but I was so charmed by the first book that I’m just grateful to spend more time with the serial-killing elderly lady at the center of the story. It’s The Talented Mr. Ripley by way of The Golden Girls—what’s not to love?

Seattle artist Steven B. Reddy’s self-published art and essay collection, Walks with Willa: A Love Story, is about Reddy adopting a dog in the early days of the pandemic and then falling in love with her as they go on long walks through a city shut down by Covid. Reddy’s illustrations of his dog Willa running around various Seattle trails and parks are positively delightful, and I love his full-color drawings of houses, too—Reddy’s perspectives are always a little bit cattywampus, and that makes his drawings fascinating to investigate. Seattleites, fans of long city walks, and dog lovers will find a lot to recognize and appreciate here. (Though as the owner of two greyhounds—one of whom is completely blind—I do take issue with Reddy’s eagerness to let Willa off-leash and to encourage other dog owners to do the same. Not every dog should be off-leash in public places, and speaking from experience off-leash dogs can pose a real danger to leashed dogs.)

Helen Jukes’ memoir about her first year of beekeeping, A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings, is an informative book about a subject I want to know more about. But I really came down with a bad case of this-could-have-been-an-article-itis while I was reading this thing—Jukes kept digressing into asides about her friends and her personal life and I just wanted to hear more about the damn bees. Perhaps this is unfair to Jukes, and I acknowledge that I definitely could have read a more scientifically focused book instead. But I like to think I’m always open to being seduced by a good memoir; this book didn’t fit that description for me.

Craig Mazin, a host of the excellent Scriptnotes podcast, recommended Dennis Palumbo’s book Writing from the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within as an actually useful how-to-write book. I’m kind of a sucker for that particular subgenre, so I picked it up. Palumbo is a former screenwriter who became a psychotherapist who specializes in treating screenwriters, and Inside is a collection of some of his observations. I was kind of bummed to discover that the book did absolutely nothing for me—I thought it was a somewhat trite collection of self-esteem-building exercises for writers. And as someone who doesn’t ever suffer from writer’s block, who doesn’t really feel envy for other writers’ accomplishments, and who doesn’t have problems hitting deadlines, the lessons didn’t really do anything for me. If you are a writer who experiences any of those common afflictions, though, this book might be just the ticket.

That’s all for this month

I’m writing this section on President’s Day—I tend to write these emails piecemeal, over the course of the month—and it occurs to me that President’s Day is an awful idea for a holiday. We’ve had plenty of mediocre-to-actively terrible presidents, and in the wake of the January 6th insurrection, a day that honors and celebrates presidents hits a little like a sour joke. A quick glance at my bookshelves will tell you that I love presidential history and trivia, but it’s clear now more than ever that the institution of the presidency simply does not deserve this kind of celebration.

I have a few ideas for national holidays that would be good replacements:

* American History Day: Every year, the president could issue a little proclamation calling on the nation to focus on a particular facet of American history—the Great Depression, say, or the War of 1812, or whatever—and maybe the media could use the president’s cue as a way to investigate and contextualize that historical moment in a big national history class.

Public Sector Workers’ Day: The hell with Millard Fillmore! I want a day where we go to a parade to honor our postal workers and teachers, and where every federal and state employee gets a little bonus check.

Volunteer Day: I know most people who get the day off would just take the damn day off no matter what you call it, but it’s still not a bad idea to celebrate civic sacrifice. People who give their time and skills to nonprofits are way more admirable than wealthy people who just dump cash in a glitzy show of philanthropy, so let’s honor them with an official day of service.

These are all silly rough sketches, but I think any one of them would serve the nation better than a President’s Day. And I think the presidents we should honor most would agree with me that President’s Day is an inappropriate federal holiday. 

Okay. That’s it. I hope you’re doing well,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s