What I’ve been writing and reading: March 2022

Roughly three-quarters of the population in Seattle seems to have entirely let their guard down when it comes to Covid. I’m in the quarter of the population that’s holding their breath and waiting to see if infection numbers spike, like they did the last two times we started to relax and gather in public.

Even if things stay relatively calm, I’m still not in any kind of a hurry to attend conventions or big in-person readings or plays. That said, I do hope that I’ll be able to get into movie theaters for the occasional matinee on a somewhat regular basis sometime soon, because this year looks like it could be an exceptional one for movies: Between two of my favorite actors, Nic Cage and Pedro Pascal, sharing the screen in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, the sci-fi weirdness of Everything Everywhere All at Once, the return of Jordan Peele in NOPE, the unabashed Brad Pitt-ery of Bullet Train, and the movie-screen chewiness of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, 2022 could be the most exciting year for non-franchise American filmmaking in at least a decade.

Speaking of unique cinematic experiences, I watched one of the better non-franchise films of 2021 a couple weeks ago: A Romanian comedy called Bad Luck Banging: Or, Loony Porn. After a frankly pornographic (but not idealized) opening scene depicting a sex tape made by a middle-aged husband and wife, the film is broken cleanly into three parts: First, the woman in the sex tape, Emi, walks around Covid-era Bucharest as she realizes the tape has been leaked onto the internet and the underage students she teaches have seen it. The second part of the movie is a very funny non-narrative video glossary explaining the social mores and history of Romania. And the third part is basically a play in which Emi comes face-to-face with the disgusted parents of her students in an all-hands meeting. The parents then vote on whether she should be allowed to keep her teaching job.

I really dug the movie for its wild blend of inventiveness, realism, and patience. Watching all the extras in the first and last third of the film tug on their masks to cover their noses as they try to obey Covid protocols felt strangely touching. And though Emi’s climactic encounter with outraged parents is stylized and openly political, it feels almost civilized compared to some of the videos we’ve seen filmed at American PTA meetings in the last couple of years. (Then it goes totally off the rails.) If you can tolerate graphic sex, this is the best weirdo movie of 2021 that almost no American has seen, and if you’re curious but don’t want to stress over the ethics of exploitation and sex on film,  a ridiculously censored version is available on Hulu.

And since we’re talking about watching stuff, I have to chime in on the three dramas about internet startups that are streaming right now: Super Pumped, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the founder of Uber, is way too enthralled with the macho dickishness of Travis Kalanick and startup culture to critique it in a meaningful way. It feels like an ad for toxic masculinity—like if Brett Ratner had written and directed The Wolf of Wall Street or Fight ClubWeCrashed, starring Anne Hathaway and Jared Leto about the making and undoing of WeWork, basically encapsulates the entire narrative in the first episode so there’s no reason to keep watching, and Hathaway’s confident acting doesn’t begin to make up for the amateurish forced “comedy” of Leto’s performance.

The only one of these three shows worth watching, in my estimation, is The Dropout, the Amanda Seyfried-starring series about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. The key to it is Seyfriend’s remarkable performance as an awkward brilliant geek who wants more than anything in the world to be Steve Jobs. She’s heartbreaking and horrifying to watch—often both in the same scene. And it’s genuinely funny: There’s a throwaway line in the most recent episode when Holmes is showing a camera crew around the Theranos building and she says, with all sincerity, “This is our state-of-the-art lobby,” and I’ve never heard a more hilariously Silicon Valley thing in my entire life. You’d have to be either a sociopath or a comedian to come to the conclusion that liminal spaces are ripe for disruption—and The Dropout is canny enough to portray the sociopath in all her moral shame, while still giving us some room (and grace) to laugh over the ridiculousness of the situation. Of the three new startup shows on streaming services right now, it’s far and away the best.

I’ve been writing

At the Seattle Times, I wrote about Ballard’s Secret Garden Books, which is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year. Secret Garden began as a children’s-only bookstore—it hosted a reading with Madeleine L’Engle!—but now it’s a fine general-interest bookstore with an exceptionally strong children’s section. This is one of the pillars of Seattle’s bookselling community, and it was fun to do a deep dive into the shop’s long and storied history.

For InsiderI wrote about how abortion bans undermine the economic power of women, forcing them to be reliant on the men in their lives and stripping them of autonomy. Women need to be able to control their own bodies before they can control their own destinies, so abortion bans are really battles over power—specifically, the power of women to participate in society.

I also wrote about a great new book that takes on Davos, the annual gathering of the world’s richest people. It’s a star-studded event in which the wealthy elite all sit around and talk about ways that they can fix the world with their fabulous wealth. Weirdly, the topic of paying more in taxes never seems to come up. And speaking of rich people with too much money, does anyone really believe that CEOs work 350 times as hard as their lowest-paid employees?

Finally, I wrote about the real cause of the rising inflation we’re all paying at grocery stores and gas stations: Corporate greed. I honestly can’t figure out why the Federal Reserve thinks that raising interest rates will do anything to lower prices when CEOs are openly bragging about jacking up prices in their quarterly earnings calls.

I’ve been reading

I very much enjoy the work of siblings Maria and Peter Hoey, who for years independently published their comics stories under the title Coin-Op Comics. Their latest book, a collection of linked short stories titled Animal Stories, was just published by Top Shelf last month, and it’s a significant step in the continuing evolution of their work. The fables in this book all have to do with humans encountering a mysterious animal (or multiple mysterious animals) and through that interaction coming face-to-face with the unknowableness of everything. The Hoeys’ comics combine the formal genius of Chris Ware with the literary aspirations of Dan Clowes, and this book is a magnificent meditation on religion, wonder, and the mystery behind every pair of nonhuman eyes.

Last month, Christina Gilbreath of The Wise Owl Books and Music recommended A Psalm for the Wild Built to me in my Seattle Times column. She said the book “is just a big warm hug. I’ve actually recommended it to a couple of nurse friends of mine, and they come back and say ‘I didn’t know I needed this book.‘” It’s the first book in a series about a tea-making monk who meets a robot, and then they explore an alien world together, all the while discussing desire and other lofty concepts. Gilbreath is absolutely right—I needed to read this book, and I can’t wait to read more. (The second book in the series comes out this summer and I’m actually going to preorder it, which is a rarity for me.) What a wonderful, gentle little novella about friendship and conversation.

The Writer’s Crusade, Tom Roston’s book-length exploration of the writing and publication of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, is an adoring fan letter to one of the greatest pieces of anti-war art produced in the 20th century. For fans of Vonnegut—even longtime readers like myself who haven’t reinvestigated his work in well over a decade—this serves as a good reminder of why Vonnegut mattered so much, and exactly how influential his greatest book was.

Slate film critic Dana Stevens published Camera Man, a biography of Buster Keaton and basically through him the entire American film industry, just last month. I really dug it. It’s a thoughtful exploration of how many facets of American life are just the same today as they were a century ago—but Stevens also explores the important differences, too, and exactly how they changed. I like that she takes the time throughout the book to explore the creation and evolution of film criticism—it’s the kind of subject that probably doesn’t warrant its own mainstream book, but Stevens cares about it and so she skillfully wraps it up into the narrative she’s researching.

Benjamin Percy’s The Ninth Metal is the first book in a series that’s kind of like Stephen King meets HP Lovecraft in the middle of a superhero comic book. It’s about an eerie metal with supernatural properties that falls to earth in Minnesota, creating a modern-day gold rush and giving super powers to a few people, seemingly at random. I had a lot of fun with it—it’s the kind of book I would have devoured as a teen and then immediately sought out every other book in the series immediately.

The Ice Palace is a slender novel by Norwegian author Tarjei Vesaas that was translated into English by Elizabeth Rokkan . It was heartily recommended by Phinney Books’ owner Tom Nissley in my column a while back as one of his favorite books of the last few years, and you just can’t let a recommendation like that slip by. While the book didn’t quite make that kind of a dent in me, it did swallow me up and refused to let me go until I finished. It’s the story of a Norwegian girl who goes missing on a cold winter night, and what happens after she disappears. It plucked the same emotional strings as The Sweet Hereafter, and I was transfixed by the stillness in its prose—it’s a book that feels like winter, through and through.

I really dug Friday: The First Day of Christmas, the first trade paperback collection of an ongoing series written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Marcos Martin. It’s a supernatural mystery series about a one-time sidekick to a kid detective who comes home from college to find that the kid detective hasn’t grown up at all, but the world around them both has gotten a lot darker. I think it’s about time to realize that I’m officially an Ed Brubaker stan—his Kill or Be Killed and Reckless series of books are some of the best comics I’ve read during the pandemic, not to mention the noirish standalones Pulp and Bad Weekend—and Martin is simply one of the best comics artists alive. This first Friday collection is relatively slight, but I can’t imagine this particular team of creators letting me down in upcoming volumes.

That’s all for this month

I’ve been listening to Downlowd, a podcast history of Harry Knowles’s infamous nerd-movie-review site Ain’t It Cool News, and I’ve become a fan of the podcast. The problem is that it’s a serialized show, so you have to listen from the very beginning, and the beginning is pretty rough. Downlowd‘s creator, Joe Simon, is very upfront about the fact that he’s never made a podcast before, and his awkwardness really comes through in the first couple of episodes—particularly the first episode where in a fit of writerly ambition, he tries to compare Harry Knowles to Charles Foster Kane in an analogy that falls apart under the slightest investigation. Anyone who writes as a career has overshot our ambition on multiple occasions, but writers at least tend to edit out those mistakes before we hit “publish.” Simon doesn’t have that luxury—he’s building the airplane in real time as it takes off.

But Simon and executive producer Kristina Bell are very open about their mistakes and missteps, often explaining them at length in special bonus episodes that are released between installments of the show. And I think each episode gets better as the show goes along—more insightful, better produced, less credulous. So if you’re interested in watching someone learn in broad daylight how to be a better reporter, this is an interesting, and fairly transparent, case study.

And of course, as someone who visited AICN regularly and would regard its atrocious comment section and poorly written reviews like a rubbernecker at a car crash, I’m interested in the subject matter. Toxic internet fan culture in particular is something that I’m deeply interested in—I touched on the subject in my first full-length comic book, Planet of the Nerds—and Harry Knowles’s site is kind of the ur-text for toxic geek fandom. You don’t get the poisonous incel army that rages against any female Marvel superhero or nonwhite Star Wars character without AICN paving the way.

But I don’t want Knowles to take up the spotlight any longer than he already has, so let me recommend a podcast that thoughtfully engages with culture from a perspective that isn’t that of an entitled white male. I’ve really grown to enjoy Criticism Is Dead, a weekly pop culture conversation podcast hosted by Jenny Zhang and Pelin Keskin-Liu. They usually discuss two big topics a week—a TV show, a movie, occasionally a book—along with a brief overview of the week’s hot topics, and they’re pretty much everything that AICN never was: smart, curious, and entertaining. I’d say I disagree with their critiques about 20 percent of the time, but I never regret hearing their opinions. AICN is undeniably a relic of the past, and I hope that Criticism Is Dead’s thoughtful and humane conversation represents the future of reviews.

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