What I’ve been writing and reading: August 2022

Every time I opened a newspaper in my late teens and early 20s, when the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was at its height, I half-expected to read news that Rushdie had been attacked. But that was decades ago, and so much time has passed that this month’s heinous attack on Rushdie was somehow a shock.

And the photos of the aftermath of the stabbing—a single drop of blood on a familiar beige chair, arranged on a familiar stuffy stage in front of a familiar well-to-do older white audience—turned my stomach in part because it felt so disquietingly normal. I’ve been on plenty of stages just like that, interviewing authors. I know what the atmosphere in the room was just a few minutes before the attack: I know the sounds the audience made, the volley of questions and answers, the mild electric buzz of finally breathing the same air as someone whose books you’ve adored. I’ve spent a lot of time in variations of that room.

But I’ve never been in a room where an author is stabbed by a member of the audience. I can’t imagine feeling that terror, experiencing that jarring moment where reality readjusts itself around a strange new normal. I’d call it unthinkable, but someone thought it. And now it’s real, and now we all have to live with it.

There have been plenty of inspiring words written about how literature will prevail, and how there will always be writers brave enough to speak the truth no matter the cost. I’m glad that those pieces exist and I took comfort in them. But I’m personally having a hard time perceiving this moment as a battle in the epic war between good and evil.

I haven’t spent any time learning about the attacker, so I don’t know anything beyond the fact that he was caught and arrested on the scene. Odds are pretty good he will claim he did what he did because of religion, but it really could have been any reason. There are always young men who want nothing more than to destroy something larger than them—something they don’t, in their youth, have the patience to comprehend.

Rushdie was doing what writers do. I’m glad he was doing it, and I hope he’ll soon be back to it. I admire his bravery, and the bravery of everyone in that room who stood up to help, even while I desperately wish that it had never happened. I hate that one angry young man can assert his will on the world through an action like this, even as I’m comforted by the fact that writers will continue to write, despite the monstrous actions of those who just want to burn our libraries down to the ground and plunge the world into darkness. They’ll never win, but sometimes they knock the wind out of us.

I wish Rushdie a swift recovery. I have not a single doubt in my mind that he’ll continue to be a light in the world, standing against the night of ignorance.

I’ve been writing

This kind of feels like cheating, but I pre-scheduled this month’s newsletter. By the time you read this I’m just back from a vacation on the Washington coast—away from work and the news and, perhaps most importantly, the internet. So everything I’ve written this month has not yet been published in time for me to link here. I’ll include those links next time.

For the Seattle Times, I profiled Mercer Street Books, one of the most gorgeous bookstores in the city. This was an emotional piece for me to write for a lot of reasons, and I really hope the story will inspire more Seattleites to seek the shop out, because it is an absolute hidden treasure.

For Business Insider, I wrote about the many different definitions of what it means to be in a recession, and why our current economic climate doesn’t really match any useful definition. I also wrote two pieces about about the Inflation Reduction Act: First, why it’s a big win for the average American, and then why its tax on stock buybacks is a tremendously underrated development.

I’ve been reading

Last month, I said I was trying to not read brand-new books for a while. Many of you chipped in with brilliant backlist recommendations, and I’m going to be reading off that list pretty heavily for the next few months. I begin, awkwardly, with two recommendation-adjacent books because I couldn’t track down the actual recommended titles.

Amber recommended sci-fi author Sherri Tepper, who I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read. The local used bookstore didn’t have any of the Tepper titles Amber recommended, so I picked up the only option available: A novel titled Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. Published in 1997, it’s a dystopian future set in a millennial America in which fundamentalists have taken over, a presidential candidate rides a crest of fascism by stoking the public’s anger at women, and the nation is on the verge of a violent coup. I don’t imagine this is one of Tepper’s best books, but I really enjoyed the political satire—even though it hit too close to our current reality for comfort. This definitely won’t be the last of her books that I’ll read.

And Frances recommended Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, but the only Hrabal immediately available at the library was I Served the King of England, which I’ve always meant to read. What a fun, artful shaggy dog joke of a book this is! With the hotel trappings and the European sensibilities it reminds me a little bit of Stefan Zweig‘s fiction, only a lot wilder and less restrained. I suspect that when I finally get my hands on Too Loud a Solitude I’ll enjoy it a great deal.

And then a few newer titles I had on waitlists came in from the library. Jerry Stahl’s memoir Nein, Nein, Nein! is about Stahl having a breakdown while on an extensive tour of historical Holocaust sites. Be advised that it’s written in that kind of macho 20th century male literary cadence—think Hunter S. Thompson—but Stahl is funny enough, and emotionally aware enough, that it doesn’t feel like a pose.

Funny You Should Ask is a comic romance novel about a journalist who is assigned a profile of a hunky but dumb American movie star. I thought it was charming and fun, but the idea that an American actor would ever be given the role of James Bond was so ridiculous as to make the book feel like science fiction. And even though the book acknowledged that female journalists falling for their subjects is a tired trope, it still asked us to buy into the trope. So this one kind of qualifies as a guilty pleasure because I had to overlook two big flaws—but a guilty pleasure still counts as a pleasure as far as I’m concerned.

A Novel Obsession is a novel about a writer who becomes obsessed with her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, secretly befriends the ex, and then writes a novel about the whole experience. It’s a dark thriller with an unreliable narrator, and it’s a real page-turner—though it doesn’t quite follow all the way through on its delicious buildup.

I also re-read the first twenty or so Sandman comics to refresh my memory before I begin watching the Netflix series. I last read these books in the 1990s, but they were such essential texts to me that I remembered a lot more than I expected to. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that unlike a lot of comics from the late 80s and early 90s, these books still read very smoothly. Neil Gaiman seems to have an innate understanding of exactly how many words each panel can hold without making the page feel too wordy and overwrought. And I was also impressed how, even with a rotating cast of artists, settings, genres, and times, Gaiman’s writing somehow made the series feel of a single piece. There’s a pulse in the writing that is unmistakable and continuous, even if the art switches from a cartoony 90s-style in one issue to a gritty abstract horror style in the next. I don’t exactly know how Gaiman does it, but now that I’ve written comics I’m even more impressed with how successful this comic is.

That’s all for this month

Briefly, I just wanted to touch on a couple of topics I’ve brought up here in months past.

First: I do still plan on leaving Twitter if Elon Musk buys it—he’s confirmed he’d bring Trump back to the service, which is a hard quit from me—but since it looks like Musk’s deal might fall apart in court I’ve been cautiously tweeting again.

Second: I definitely still feel that literary burnout I was talking about last month, and the Penguin Random House trial has only made me feel worse about the state of publishing. It confirmed all my worst suspicions about mainstream mega-publishers being vapid and incestuous, paying their authors and staff way too little while also giving multi-million dollar advances to famous people, and having no idea how to run a sustainable business. Add in the Barnes & Noble gossip and things look pretty bleak to me. I think I’m going to slip a little further into backlist land and catch up on some classics for the next little while, so your recommendations continue to be much appreciated.

And many of you are asking after Obie and Wally. The boys are doing just fine. They’re happy, loving the sunny summer weather, and enjoying each others’ company a great deal. Oberon turned 8 this year, and he’s every inch a distinguished older gentleman. He’s leaner and not as muscular as he used to be, but he’s still prone to silly bursts of energy and leaping when he’s excited.

What a distinguished older gentleman looks like.

And Wallace has calmed down a little bit, after hitting his 4th birthday last month. He’s unusually vocal for a greyhound and he used to bark at any stranger who got too close. But he’s less prickly and more trusting now. I think in addition to age and familiarity, he’s realized that he’s in his forever home and that he doesn’t need to continually be on guard for danger. He’s on a very sweet emotional journey. I love that he greets me with a little dance, hopping from one paw to the other, when I arrive at home after a long walk.

Two good boys on the prowl.

I hope you had a terrific summer.

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