What i’ve been writing and reading: April 2022

In the week since Elon Musk announced he was buying Twitter, he has already encouraged racist and misogynist bullying of Twitter employees, he’s publicly embraced alt-right sleazoids including the guy who inspired the “Pizza Gate” misinformation campaign, and he’s continually railed against the “woke” left (which apparently includes Netflix for some reason.)

Now I’m not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but I know that when a right-wing scumbag with a racist army buys a social network there’s no point in trying to change that system from the inside. Just within the last week, fascist Musk bootlickers have been emboldened, picking fights with trans people and people of color on Twitter and swarming their replies with abuse. It all reminds me of the days after Trump won the election in 2016, when the Nazis realized they didn’t have to hide anymore.

So if Musk’s $44 billion offer goes through and he takes control of Twitter in six months as planned, I’m leaving Twitter, and I’m already throttling down my daily Twitter use to prepare for that moment. (Though it may not happen; if Tesla shares start to really tank, there’s a good chance Musk might have to back off. I hope the deal falls through, but I’m not holding my breath)

I’ve been experimenting with my old Tumblr account and I’m enjoying myself over there. It’s a creative community that’s visual-forward but allows for long-form blogging. There are two big problems with Tumblr, though: First, there’s no news on the site to speak of, so I’ll need a new way to stay on top of breaking news, and second, there aren’t enough people on there to make my feed feel as lively as my Twitter feed does. I can’t do much about the first problem, but you can do something about the second: If you’re on Tumblr or you want to experiment with the network, be sure to say hi over there.

If Musk does buy Twitter, that means I’m also going to have to do something with my newsletter. I currently use Revue, which is Twitter’s newsletter service. It is, quite honestly, very bad: The formatting is terrible and the back end is janky. I only chose Revue because it was integrated so tightly with Twitter. There’s no value to it otherwise. But the good news is that I can just move those email addresses over to another service and readers shouldn’t notice a thing when or if that happens.

This opening note feels horribly self-indulgent and navel-gazey, but I think it’s important to explain where I’m coming from, in part because I was a huge proponent of Twitter right from the beginning. And yes, I realize that every social network is run by terrible rich people, but I draw a very clear line at people who happily attract mobs of Nazis to do their bidding online. I spent four years on Twitter being obsessed with one deranged rich guy with too much power and a base of foaming-at-the-mouth bigots. I won’t be fooled again.

I’ve been Writing

At the Seattle Times, I interviewed Neil Gaiman in advance of his reading at Benaroya Hall this Sunday night. It was a great conversation, and he was, as always, impossibly charming. (As a bonus, I’m including some outtakes from that conversation at the end of this email.)

Also at the Times, I wrote about Open Books, Seattle’s lone poetry-only bookstore, and its recent move to a new storefront in Pioneer Square. Aside from the pure joy of a new bookstore opening in Seattle’s original Bookstore District, the thing that I love about the new Open Books space is the fact that it has two rooms—the Parlor and the Print Shop—that are intended to be community hubs for Seattle’s poetry community. It’s now a space where literary magazines can be formed, edited, and printed; writing groups can meet to discuss work that will appear in upcoming chapbooks; and authors can debut new books to adoring crowds—all at the same time.

On my Tumblr, I wrote a little bit about why I, a huge Nicolas Cage fan, was disappointed by the new film The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. I do a little meditating about what I think the film gets wrong about Cage’s allure.

And it was a big month over at Insider, where I wrote about a new wage tracker that shows exactly how little 66 of the world’s biggest, most iconic companies pay their workforce, why banning stock buybacks would raise wages for workers, why America’s shameful and racist mass incarceration problem is doing serious economic harm to the country, and why the minimum wage would be well over $20 per hour if worker pay had kept up with productivity.

i’ve been reading

So I finally read Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Crossroads, and I found it to be a compelling, if way too angsty, soap opera about a family that’s falling apart at the center of a church community in the 1970s. I can’t deny that it’s well-written, but every single character in this book was an awful person, and every single one of them made at least one choice in the narrative that just completely turned me off. In other words, it’s Franzen doing Franzen.

Seattle cartoonist and comedian Brett Hamill’s latest comic book memoir, Sk8 Dad Summer, is a sweet, low-stakes collection of anecdotes about Hamill rekindling his interest in skateboarding, and a meditation about how the rebelliousness of his youth as a skater interacts with his relatively gentle adult life as the dad of a toddler. The comics in this book reminded me a little of the diary comics of James Kochalka and John Porcellino—a huge compliment, coming from someone who was obsessed with autobio comics in the 1990s—and the stories build on each other to form a lovable portrait of a man trying to do the best he can at honoring responsibilities he’s taken on, while still being true to himself.

Gideon Defoe’s An Atlas of Extinct Countries is an encyclopedia of nations that fell apart, collapsed, or otherwise completely disappeared from the face of the planet. It’s an interesting premise for a non-fiction book, and Defoe (who wrote a few humorous novels about pirates a while back) is both a good researcher and a chatty tour guide. But if you do buy the book, I recommend not reading it straight through from beginning to end, as I did. The various extinctions all get a little same-y when you read them one after the other. This is a better book to flip through than swallow whole.

And while we’re talking about humorous books that you probably shouldn’t rip through cover-to-cover, Ryan North’s How to Take Over the World: Practical Schemes and Scientific Solutions for the Aspiring Supervillain is a very funny book that applies real-world science to the plots and schemes of super-villains. Under the guise of describing how to build a secret lair and plot world domination, North explains the basics of earth sciences, computer programming, and climate change in easy-to-understand language. It’s hard to find the perfect mixture between entertaining and educational, but North pulls it off.

Photo No-Nos: Meditations on What Not to Photograph is an anthology from Aperture that collects essays from world-famous photographers who explain the subjects that they refuse to include in their photographs. Of course, it’s light-hearted: if you took every single prohibited subject in the book seriously, you wouldn’t ever take another photograph in your life. But the subject is an interesting constraint, and you can learn a lot about art by studying what mistakes the great practitioners have made over the course of their careers. Great photography is as unknowable to me as magic—I know it when I see it but I have no idea what goes into it or why it works so well—and this book helped me think like a photographer for a while. In that respect it was a fascinating exercise.

I’m a huge fan of Michel Faber—Under the Skin and especially The Book of Strange New Things are all-time great novels—and so I was thrilled to see that he published a novel for young readers. D (a Tale of Two Worlds) is an homage to Charles Dickens and a fantasy novel about what would happen if one day the letter “D” just suddenly disappeared from the world. It’s not my favorite Faber book by any stretch (and this is a very specific recommendation: If you want to read a good novel about letters mysteriously disappearing from everyday use, I’d recommend Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea before this one) but if you’re a fan of Faber’s analytic voice, whimsical creativity, and slightly aloof observational eye, you’ll find plenty to enjoy.

I do love to read books about marriage, but I never really feel as though I recognize the marriage described in the book. That’s how it was for my experience with Heather Havrilesky’s Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage. I didn’t at all agree with Havrilesky’s insistence that every married person hates their spouse on a regular basis, for instance. That concept is just alien to me. And at several points, the story feels like the author is pumping up the drama of some moments just for the sake of making the memoir more memorable—and a climactic epiphany that involves the Netflix show The Crown and the astrological signs of various British royalty left me absolutely cold. There are four or five good essays stashed inside Foreverland, but I can’t recommend it as a book with any particularly unique insights into marriage.

I listened to Bob Odenkirk’s memoir Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama because Odenkirk reads it himself, and if you’re going to spend time with a celebrity memoir you might as well hear it in the celebrity’s own words. It’s a fun book, and I especially appreciated that Odenkirk didn’t try to hide the fact that he could be downright surly if he feels like someone is trying to mess with his art or screw him in business. He’s got a few axes to grind, and I’m here for it. But I was frankly shocked that Odenkirk didn’t include the near-fatal heart attack he suffered on the set of Better Call Saul last year in the book. Look, I get that publishing works on a very long schedule and I understand that the book was absolutely finished before the incident. But my God—it’s the 21st century: Surely you can rush to insert a chapter acknowledging how close the memoir was to being a posthumous release? Knowing what we know now, the book kind of fades out, and the heart attack is a giant looming shadow over the last couple chapters that’s never addressed.

Wow—in retrospect, I read a lot of books by white dudes this month. I’ve got to broaden my scope for next month.

That’s all for this month

I figured I’d close with a couple of questions and answers that were cut for space in my Seattle Times interview with Neil Gaiman. (My questions are in bold, his responses are in normal type.)

PC: Many years ago, I realized that the first Neil Gaiman book I read was not the Sandman or Black Orchid, but in fact was Don’t Panic, the companion book to Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. If time was no object, would there be any kind of art that you’d write a companion book for today? Any novels or comics that you’re moved by in the same way that Adam’s fiction spoke to you in the eighties?

NG: That’s a really good question. I don’t think so. But having said that, I did love getting to do my book, The View From The Cheap Seats, which contains lots and lots and lots of essays, introductions, and encomia that actually allow me to talk about books that I love, about writers that I love, about works of fiction that I love, poems I love. And that to me was hugely important.

You do seem to be a world-class reader. I wonder if maybe in another reality you wouldn’t be a literary critic? You’d probably also be a lot poorer.

Well, I was a book reviewer when I started, and so that was where I began. But I’m professor in the arts at Bard College, and I love being a professor, it’s great. One reason why it’s great is because I get to work with young kids and show them what’s amazing to read, and why it’s fun to write, and all of that kind of stuff.

I mentioned on Twitter that I was interviewing you and a Twitter follower named Carrie wanted to know if you have a favorite graveyard.

I have a few favorite graveyards. I love Highgate Cemetery West. It’s amazing. I am very fond of Glasgow’s Necropolis. I love every graveyard I’ve ever been to in New Orleans. I don’t think I’ve ever done an official graveyard tour in New Orleans, but I’ve absolutely had friends in New Orleans take me around graveyards and talk. Actually, I did! I did one official graveyard tour. I remember because they filled me in on lots of interesting facts about how bodies were disposed of in New Orleans that I did not know.

I love graveyards and I love wandering through them. I always find them peculiarly happy places. And I think even when I was a little kid, I’d be scared of graveyards, but I also found them very, very peaceful. There’s something very human about a graveyard—just the idea that people have lived their lives and finished them. That’s wonderful!

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