What i’ve been reading and writing: September 2022

For those of you who follow my comics writing, I’m happy to report that there’s a new arrival in comics stores and bookshops this fall: I wrote a story in an anthology called Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Death from AHOY Comics. It’s a comedy/horror anthology series by some of the best comics writers and artists in the business today (and me,) adapting classic Edgar Allan Poe stories in irreverent ways.

My story in this book is a riff on the lesser-known (and very druggy) Poe story “Silence: A Fable.” In my version, a demon drags Poe to the present day and introduces him to various modern horrors: Amazon reader reviews, Twitter, Mark Zuckerberg—that sort of thing. I’m proud of this one because it’s a stylistic reach for me, a. little more abstract and packed full of callbacks to the original Poe text. I really wanted to keep the spirit and the theme of the original story intact, even as I riffed on the intersection of Poe and internet culture.

Best of all, the story is illustrated by Joltin’ Johnny Lucas, and he delivered just the right blend of MAD Magazine comedy and EC Comics terror. The brilliance he brought to my script transformed me from an admirer into a hardcore Johnny Fan 4 Life™.

And this book has plenty of other stories written by Mark Russell, Stuart Moore, and Tom Peyer, and illustrated by artists including Frank Cammuso and Peter Sneibjerg. It’s easy to be enthusiastic about self-promotion when there are so many other talented writers and artists—many of whom I’ve adored since I was a teenager—between the same covers. I hope you’ll pick up a copy in time for Halloween. There’s no other comic quite like it.

i’ve been writing

Speaking of stories I’m proud of, I published a piece in the Seattle Times about walking around Lake Washington in a single day. At least once a year, usually around the solstice, I try to schedule a walk that goes from sunrise to sunset—and in the Pacific Northwest, our summer days stretch out to 18 or 20 hours or so of daylight. In the piece, I talk about what it’s like to walk 56 miles in a day, why anyone would possibly want to walk 56 miles in a single day, and how I became the kind of person who would walk in 56 miles in a day. There’s also a map detailing all my pee breaks and meals, and some pictures I took of the route. It’s been years since I published something so personal and voice-y, and I received quite a few nice emails from readers in response to the story, which was fun.

Also at the Times, I interviewed Gail Vaughn, the owner of the Walls of Books bookstores in Issaquah and Covington. Some Times readers alerted me to Vaughn’s Issaquah store—they said it filled a very important gap in the community that was left after the local Barnes & Noble closed at the beginning of the pandemic. In this piece, I talk a lot about how people’s attitudes toward chain bookstores have changed since the 1990s, and what it means now that Barnes & Nobles are closing and leaving bookstore deserts in their wake.

At Insider, I wrote about why it’s so important for the Biden Administration to restore the overtime threshold. Salaried Americans used to get time-and-a-half pay for every hour they worked over 40 hours per week, but the demands on our time have only increased as the threshold has been allowed to languish for the last four decades. Restoring the overtime threshold is a great way for American workers to get back a little bit of their free time or take home a little bit more pay—or a mix of both.

And at Crosscut I previewed a new book festival at Town Hall. Please be advised before you click through that the festival has already happened. But the piece digs into why Seattle hasn’t had a big, citywide book festival since the old Northwest Bookfest rolled over and died almost 18 years ago—and why now might be the time for a new book festival to take its place. In short, the publishing industry ain’t what it used to be, and the glory days of three or four touring authors visiting town and doing readings five nights a week might be a thing of the past. Many of Seattle’s independent bookstores are thriving right now, but our readings scene simply ain’t what it used to be in the pre-pandemic days. Now is the time to come together and figure out what we want the literary culture in Seattle to become.

I’ve been reading

At the beginning of this month, I was in the middle of a weeklong vacation at the beach. So I’ve read a lot more than I usually do, which means this is going to be a long one.

I revisited a pair of pulpy mystery authors I read a lot of in my 20s—Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mystery Over My Dead Body and Ed McBain’s thriller Downtown. They were both really entertaining books with crackling dialogue, sharp plot twists, and some unfortunate casual racism. The agoraphobic genius Nero Wolfe is, I believe, one of the most underrated great fictional detectives, and Dead Body introduces a character who may be his long-lost daughter. McBain is best known for his excellent 87th Precinct series of novels—a big, connected universe of police stories he published over the course of decades—but Downtown is a standalone comic novel about a normal guy who gets swept up into a ridiculous criminal underworld after being conned in a bar. Anyone interested in writing witty dialogue that doesn’t feel overdone could do worse than picking up either a McBain or a Stout story—I laughed out loud a couple times at both of these books, and Dead Body, in particular, is one of the best-written outings for Wolfe’s assistant and emissary, Archie Goodwin.

Jane Smiley’s novel The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton is intended, I think, to be a kind of feminist parallel to Huckleberry Finn, and it certainly kept my attention. But the way race was addressed in the book, while undoubtedly forward-thinking for the white, late-1990s audience Smiley was writing to when the book was published, feels awkward and ill-considered to me in 2022. Given that the book is set in Kansas in 1850, race is a huge part of the book and so the novel just didn’t work for me. I hope to read another Smiley novel soon, because I feel like I did her a disservice by choosing this one.

I sat on the beach and re-read Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book on a single sunny afternoon. The novel, about a prickly young girl and her prickly old grandma spending the summer on an island while also navigating an unspeakably huge loss, has become a summertime ritual for me. It’s a story about the sadness and ephemerality of summertime—how every gorgeous day has a little bit of chill on the air, a reminder that nothing is permanent. Every year this book becomes a little more important to me, and every year I find something new to love about it.

Several of you recommended Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which I’d somehow never read. I’m sure there’s nothing I can say about Le Guin’s genius that hasn’t been said before. But this book, about an earthling who must navigate an alien world where gender is fluid, is a stone-cold classic. Something I noticed, though, is that our language in the year 2022 is so much better equipped to talk about people whose genders don’t fit the standard male-female binary. The narrator in this book describes their companion, who is at the time of the story presenting as male, as “he” throughout when a modern author would more likely use “they.” The non-binary usage would absolutely change the reader’s perception of that character, and I’m sure Le Guin would have used it had she written the book today. Isn’t it great that our language evolves to better suit our more nuanced understanding of the world?

And Frances and Ivan recommended Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, which is a brilliant short novel about the power of books written from the perspective of a man who destroys books for a living. This one is something special—a masterful book about books by an author with a phenomenal sense of humor.

Vladimir by Julia May Jonas is a novel about college professors and washed-up writers and affairs and complicated marriages. It’s a pretty sleazy, although beautifully written, novel about pretty terrible people. If you’re looking for a recent novel about sexual politics that won’t leave you feeling like you binge-watched a whole season of a smarmy prestige-TV soap opera, I’d instead recommend Patricia Wants to Cuddle, Samantha Allen’s novel about a Bachelor-like reality TV show that is filming its final episodes in the San Juan Islands. A monster gets involved in the reality TV drama, and people start to die. My two biggest problems with this book have nothing to do with the writing—first, the title is a huge spoiler; and second, the cover depicts a King Kong-like ape that is nowhere in the book. The marketing department fell down on this one in a huge way, which is a real shame.

Bill Schutt’s Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History is a non-fiction account of the history of cannibalism—humans eating humans, yes, but also frogs eating frogs and other intra-species dining options. It’s not nearly as sensational as you might expect a book like this to be—instead, it’s a clear-eyed scientific and historical account of what leads someone to eat their own.

I greatly enjoyed Becky Chambers’s second Robot and Monk book, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. In it, a monk who performs tea ceremonies travels around an alien world with a curious robot and they talk about what it means to exist in the world. Not much happens in the book, really—it’s just a running dialogue between two characters who are deeply interested in existence while simultaneously feeling outside of existence, in very different ways. I’ll follow these characters for as long as Chambers wants to write them.

I also read a standalone novella published a few years ago by Chambers titled To Be Taught, If Fortunate. It’s about a crew of four space travelers who journey to strange worlds. They’re a science-minded exploratory crew, and they try not to leave any damage in their wake. While they’re on their years-long mission, messages from Earth become more mysterious and sporadic. I loved this book—like the Robot and Monk series, Chambers is using sci-fi tropes to explore ethics, kindness, and togetherness. While some might be turned off by the conclusion of the book, I loved it—it felt just right, and true to everything that came before. These two books turned me into the kind of person who will seek out and read every Becky Chambers book on publication. It’s always exciting to find a new author whose career you’re excited to follow, regardless of whatever their next book is about.

That’s all for this month

This is a weird thing to write in an email, but there’s a good chance that I might owe you an email.

I’ve been really bad about responding to emails lately. I think the expanse of summer and its boundless possibilities for outdoor interactions left me feeling paralyzed and overwhelmed. And then as you may know, the guilt of not replying to emails only compounds with each passing day until each individual email weighs the emotional equivalent of six pickup trucks. They become dense and immovable objects, impossible to ignore but also impossible to address.

Emails are opportunities, and I’ve been allergic to opportunities, lately. I’ve turned down multiple public events in the last few months—onstage interviews, readings, the type of thing I used to happily do six to eight times a month in the pre-pandemic days. Part of the reason behind my repeated refusals was that the majority of Seattle-area bookstores and readings venues do not have mask mandates, and I’d feel pretty dumb if I got my first Covid infection while asking a novelist where she got her ideas from.

I’m not consumed with fear of Covid, but I definitely wanted to reduce my risk by masking in big indoor groups of people. I’m still not eating in restaurants, and I’m masking on public transit and in stores. Going maskless in public spaces felt particularly reckless, given that a new (and hopefully more effective) round of boosters was on the way.

Well. As I type this, I have Band-Aids on my left and my right arm because I got my bivalent booster and my flu shot earlier this afternoon. This means I have one less excuse holding me back from getting out there and interacting with the world. We’ll see how that goes.

In the meantime, if I owe you an email, I hope you understand that it’s not at all about you, or what you mean to me, or what I think of you. It is entirely about me. Believe me when I say I’m working on it, and trust that one day soon I will send you an email that you can ignore and feel increasingly guilty about. Emotional labor is so much easier when it’s shared, don’t you think?

Take care of yourself,

Paul

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