What i’ve been writing and reading: may 2022

I’m in the pits right now, friends. The news is all heartbreaking, the weather in Seattle is pretty dire, and nobody knows for sure if Covid is or is not going to throw the mother of all comeback tours in the fall.

I’m also tearing my hair out over the fact that a judge in Virginia ruled that two books for young readers are obscene. I can’t believe that last story isn’t getting more attention, by the way: If the ruling stands, it would be the first time in 50 years that a book would be banned in the United States on the grounds of obscenity. It could be illegal to own a book in certain parts of America. Chew on that for a while, and then try to tell me that cancel culture on college campuses is the real problem right now.

So in order to chase the late-spring blues away, let’s talk about a few things that I’ve been grateful for lately:

  • We’re still waiting for the really good summer foods to come in—Rainier cherries, where are you?—but I was very excited to find this strawberry curry recipe at Atlas Obscura. I’ve been cooking a lot of Indian food for the past year, thanks to Meera Sodha’s excellent cookbooks, and this summery treat of a recipe felt quite in line with what I’ve learned from Sodha.
  • I managed a 72,000-step (36-mile) walk around most of Lake Washington on the last day of April that left me feeling pretty good, although my new Nike hiking sneakers left my feet covered in huge blisters, which is why I wasn’t able to complete the walk all the way around the lake (That’s what I get for straying from my beloved Brooks hiking sneakers.)
  • I’m not traditionally a huge Harry Styles fan, but his new album, Harry’s House, is phenomenal. The opening song, “Music for a Sushi Restaurant,” is a bop and while the album flags a little toward the end, it’s definitely worth listening all the way through.
  • I also love Seattle musician Hollis’s new album Subliminal, and that will be sharing space with Styles (and, presumably, Lizzo’s new album that comes out in July) on heavy rotation all summer long.
  • Last month, stand-up comedian Gary Gulman reached out to me on Twitter to say he enjoyed the comic I made with Fred Harper, Snelson: Comedy Is Dying. He also invited me to his show at the Moore in Seattle on May 28th. I already knew I enjoyed Gulman’s work—his HBO special, The Great Depresh, is well worth your time, and he’s got a small but hilarious role in Amy Schumer’s very good Hulu sitcom Life After Beth—but I wasn’t prepared for how much I’d love his live show. At nearly two hours, he ventured everywhere from cancel culture to toasters to stage magic, and he simultaneously provided a running commentary on how the set was going all the while. It was a deeply funny, gorgeously written show. If you’re a reader—and if you’re getting this email, you are almost certainly a reader—I can’t encourage you enough to check out Gulman on his Born on Third Base tour if he’s anywhere near you this summer or fall.

I’ve been writing

I loved talking to Tacoma author Peter Bacho about his memoir Uncle Rico’s Encore for The Seattle Times. Bacho grew up in Seattle and his book is all about his experiences with the local Filipino community—their labor victories, their efforts to change the city for the better, their complicated ties with the country they left behind. He was a funny, fantastic interviewee.

And also for The Seattle Times, I wrote about Blue Kettle Books, a cross between an indie bookstore and a food truck. The owner and operator of Blue Kettle, Monica LeMoine, is driving Seattle’s newest—and smallest—bookstore to festivals, breweries, and farmer’s markets all over the north end. I was really interested to learn about her process for stocking the shop: There’s room for about 800 titles, so she has to be very choosy. And I love her mission to take the books directly to people who otherwise might not visit bookstores.

For Business Insider, I wrote about a new proposed tax on Big Oil’s profit markups, three very progressive policies in President Biden’s proposed 2023 budget, and the private equity firms that murdered Toys R Us in the name of a quick profit.

I’ve been reading

Emily St. John Mandel’s latest novel, Sea of Tranquility, features a character who, like Emily St. John Mandel and her runaway bestseller Station Eleven, recently wrote a blockbuster novel about a pandemic. Usually those self-referential characters are a huge turnoff for me, but St. John Mandel’s self-insert was possibly my favorite part of this book. It’s not as good as Station Eleven, but it similarly brings her empathy and sensitivity to science fiction tropes like pandemics and moon bases.

I really enjoyed Florence Williams’s nonfiction book Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey, which begins with a brief memoir of Williams’s marriage falling apart unexpectedly through no fault of her own and then transforms into her exploration of the science and history of human heartbreak. There are ninety ways this book could have gone bad, but Williams dodges them all.

I was enthralled by two short works of fantasy this month: Sarah Tolmie’s All the Horses of Iceland is a fable about the origins of Iceland’s short-legged horses , and Spear is Nicola Griffith’s gorgeous feminist reexamination of the Arthurian legend. These are both short books that don’t lean into traditional fantasy tropes, and I was haunted by the both of them in very different ways. Ask me to pick a favorite and I’d give Griffith the edge—but I have to note that I am not impartial because I am maybe the only person on earth to have ever been thrown from the back of an Icelandic horse, so I hold a little bit of a grudge toward the little bastards.

I was also swept up by two similar books about bizarre animals: The Soul of an Octopus is a heartbreaking and fascinating exploration of the consciousness of octopuses, and The Sound of a Wild Snail Chewing is about a woman who, during a long illness, is charmed by a wild snail that a friend places on her bedside table. Neither of those animals are recognizably human in any way, but the authors do a fantastic job of explaining what makes them worthy of our attention—and our emotions.

Written by Ram V and illustrated by Filipe Andrade, The Many Death of Laila Starr is a comic about what happens to the personification of death when a scientific genius makes death obsolete. Basically, death gets laid off, and she decides to get her revenge on the inventor of immortality. It’s a charming story about a subject that’s prone to cliches, but the creative team dodge every obstacle in their path. Maybe the nicest thing I could say about this book is that I think it stands up alongside Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series with its personification of grand concepts and its mythologization of the everyday.

The most interesting parts of Claire Stanford’s new novel Happy for You were the segments in which the main character, an academic born of a Japanese mother and a Jewish father, struggles with the boxes that website intake forms try to categorize her into—does she check “Asian-American” or “Other,” for instance? Our hero is airlifted out of grad school limbo and into a large tech company’s project to map and measure human happiness, and Stanford does good work exploring that fuzzy area between computational precision and human messiness. The book doesn’t find a satisfying conclusion but I loved the way it explored its themes so much that I didn’t really care.

And John Scalzi’s latest sci-fi novel, The Kaiju Preservation Society, is a summer blockbuster of a book. It’s about a loser who gets hired by a company to travel across dimensions and keep an eye on the giant city-destroying monsters on the other side, and Scalzi is having great fun drilling down into what a creature like Godzilla would really be like—giant parasites and all. If you’re looking for a big, fun science fiction thrill ride to take on vacation this summer, I think this might be the one for you.

That’s all for this month

A couple weeks ago, I walked to the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal, took the ferry to Vashon Island, and then walked to downtown Vashon. I can’t recommend Vashon as a walking destination because there are no sidewalks on most of the island, so the only obstacle between your body and traffic hurtling at 45 miles per hour in the opposite direction is a little white strip of paint.

But as I was nearing Vashon, I saw a sign by the side of the road near the entrance of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit:

A few years ago, I’d done a little research into labyrinths in the Seattle area (apparently, there are 24 of them, according to the World-wide Labyrinth Locator) but I’d never actually visited one before. So I stopped and walked the path. While the Vashon Labyrinth follows the formula of a labyrinth—it’s just a circuitous path around a circle with a central area for meditation—it’s a fairly low-key affair. The path itself is just a rut dug into a lawn next to the church:

Now that I’ve officially walked one labyrinth, I understand the appeal. Part of the reason why I enjoy frequent miles-long walks is that it serves as a form of meditation for me—once I pass mile 20, my brain stops cycling through the usual array of annoying repetitive thoughts and I start to feel a little less like a restless brain in a jar and more like a body existing in the world.

The labyrinth, then, serves as a kind of focused meditation exercise that distills the meditation of walking: You trust the path, you round the corners, and you can see the whole path around you, so you just patiently put one foot in front of the other. At the center, you pause and look at where you’ve been, and then you reverse your steps. I bet if you were to do some breathing exercises while you walked the path, it would be even more calming.

Maybe this fall, I’ll start including Seattle-area labyrinths into my walks. I can’t see labyrinths taking the place of my regular walking practice, but they’re an interesting exercise for someone who walks an average of ten miles a day: Going nowhere in particular, slowly, for no reason, and taking the longest possible route to get there. I could probably use some more of that in my life, and I bet you could too.

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