What i’ve been reading and writing: January 2023

Just one month in, and 2023 already feels more action-packed than 2022. I attended a big birthday party and a literary happy hour—each of which would have been a highlight of any of any month last year.

Perhaps most startlingly, I started 2023 off with a last-minute day-job business trip to the east coast, and I carved five hours out of that whirlwind weekend to walk around Philadelphia. Even though I grew up on the east coast, I’d never spent any time in Philly. I always unconsciously dismissed it as a blend of Washington DC and Boston—a city obsessed with the past, and a population too interested in sports and silly accents to be interesting.

Friends, I was entirely wrong. I loved Philadelphia and I want to return posthaste. The food! The walkability! The friendliness! The density! True, the public transit is named Septa, which sound way too close to “septic” for my liking. But the transit is frequent and useful! Yes, the sports culture is obsessive. But the hockey team’s mascot is Gritty, the Socialist Icon™! 

I walked about twelve miles. Along the way, I zipped through the historic district, grabbed lunch at the Italian Market, and visited the art museum. In just that short amount of time Philadelphia became one of my favorite American cities. And while I’m never going to move there—west coast is the best coast—I do wish I could snap my fingers and make Seattle as dense as Philly, with its attractive stands of townhouses lining alleys and streets. 

And density is written into Philadelphia’s source code. At my Philly-native friend Goldy’s recommendation, I visited Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest residential street in America. It was a fantastic reminder that Americans have been living in dense urban environments from the very beginning:

So January has been quite the adventure after the three-year blur that was 2020. And while not every month will include business travel to new cities, I already have two AWP-adjacent events scheduled for March—more on those in next month’s newsletter—in addition to a couple of literary events in my calendar for later on in the year and a couple comics projects in the works. 

Is it already time to worry about overextending myself? Probably not. But that’s never stopped me from worrying before!

I’ve been writing

For the Seattle TimesI wrote about Elliott Bay Book Company. This was a challenging one to write about because I worked there for eight years. I handled that by telling my story about working at Elliott Bay to open the piece, and then I had to make sure I didn’t make it all about me. I’m pretty happy with how this one turned out, and I’m looking forward to the store’s 50th anniversary celebration, which will take place in June of this year.

I’ve been reading

The first book I read this year was María José Ferrada’s How to Order the Universe, a novella about a 7-year-old girl who takes up her father’s job of door-to-door sales and proves to be quite the prodigy. It’s a gorgeous little fable, told simply but with all sorts of weird magic underneath the words. A good start!

Last month, I read and mostly enjoyed the Clewiston Test by Kate Wilhelm. This month, I read Wilhelm’s The Killer Thing, a potboiler about a soldier trapped on an alien planet with a killer robot. I much preferred Killer to Clewiston, and I’m kind of shocked nobody has adapted this lean little monster of a story into a movie.

Novels about music don’t usually do it for me, and hardcore punk music usually bores me to tears. So it’s fair to say that I only read No One Left to Come Looking for You because it’s the new novel from Sam Lipsyte, and I’m a diehard Lipsyte fan. I wound up really liking it! It’s sort of a mystery novel about a young punk trying to figure out where his friend’s disappeared to, but it’s really about the 1990s, the youthful quest for authenticity, and everything that’s gone wrong in the decades since punk rock finally rolled over and died. 

I picked up Claire Keegan’s novella Foster because it’s a Peak Pick selection at the Seattle Public Library. It’s a book about a young Irish girl who finds the family she really needs but wasn’t born into, and it definitely pulled all my Anne of Green Gables orphan-girl heartstrings—which is to say: reader, I cried. 

In case you can’t tell from all the novellas, I had a hard time focusing on prose this month. So I read more book-length comics than usual—most of which I borrowed from the Seattle Public Library’s impressive comics collection. Smahtguyis a comic book biography of Congressperson Barney Frank, illustrated and written by former Frank staffer Eric Orner. While Orner doesn’t shy away from covering Frank’s scandals, the book is a little too hagiographic to be a truly great biography. But I still really enjoyed it. 

The first volume of Chip Zdarsky’s new comic Public Domain is really excellent—a funny and big-hearted slice-of-life story about a comic artist who’s been screwed out of the rights to a popular superhero character he helped create. It’s not a preachy anti-corporate-comics tirade, but it does have some interesting things to say about creativity and ownership. If the next volumes keep up this level of quality, Public Domain is destined to be my favorite comic by Zdarsky, which is saying something. And because it’s mostly about family tensions but it’s set in the superhero comics publishing world, I bet you could probably trick some of your superhero-obsessed pals into reading it!

In 1949, Charles Biro founded a comics anthology magazine for a grown-up audience called Tops. It was supposed to be a kind of New Yorker in comics form, with mature genre comics and comics journalism about a wide variety of topics including what it’s like to be a fashion model. They only published a handful of issues before the endeavor failed, but I read this gorgeous oversized collection from Fantagraphics while trying to imagine what the world would be like if Biro had succeeded and general adult audiences embraced comics as a medium 50 years before graphic novels finally broke into the mainstream. It’s positively utopian.

Eat the Rich is written by Echo Wife novelist Sarah Gailey and drawn by Pius Bak. It’s a dirty little genre thriller about a woman who goes to visit her boyfriend’s wealthy family, only to get sucked into a dark family secret. It’s an over-the-top parody of all the violence that goes into the accrual of enormous intergenerational wealth, and I had a good time with it.

Some other newsletters you might enjoy

Since Newsletters Are the New Social Networks™, and since you (hopefully) enjoy reading newsletters, I thought I should recommend a few newsletters that I enjoy. 

My friend Davida’s newsletter, the slow and unyielding march of time, is the biggest direct influence on what I’m doing here: She writes about books that she’s read (Davida has great taste in books) and shares a little bit of what’s been on her mind lately. (Look at fancy old me, calling her an influence when really I just shamelessly ripped off her formula. What I’m saying is if you hate this newsletter, blame Davida.) 

Fred Harper was my partner on my most recent comic, Snelson: Comedy Is Dying. He’s a brilliant artist and an all-around swell guy and I’m so thrilled that he started a newsletter recently. His travels around Greece have been fun to follow, and every issue is packed with art.

Hmmm That’s Interesting is a newsletter by a woman named Clara who also posts very funny Tik Tok videos imagining exasperated PR professionals’ reactions to celebrity meltdowns. Clara writes about books and celebrity gossip. Her perspective is deeply humane and smart, and her voice feels true and is crystal clear.

I follow a bunch of comics newsletters, but the truth is that most of them are just nakedly promotional vehicles and I can’t in good conscience recommend them to anyone who’s not already a fan of the creators’ work. The one comics newsletter that I absolutely rave about to anyone who’ll listen is ND Stevenson’s memoir vignette comics series, I’m Fine I’m Fine Just Understand. I have no doubt that these strips will one day be collected in a book and the world will swoon over them, and I’m thrilled to get an advance peek at the work as it’s being created.

(One caveat to the above paragraph: I’m hopelessly biased because they’re my publisher, but I do recommend the AHOY Comics monthly newsletter because it usually contains contributions from AHOY creators ruminating on seasonal topics. It’s literally the only publisher email that I read from front to back every time a new edition lands in my inbox.)

My two favorite newsletters about internet news and culture are Today In Tabs and Garbage DayTabs is consistently funnier and more interested in momentary online trends as they bubble up, curdle, and die.  Garbage Day publishes real, opinionated investigations of internet culture’s top stories, and provides some important real-world context to those stories. 

And last but not least: every weekday, Flow State sends out an email with new recommendations for vocal-free music that’s perfect for writing and studying and thinking. If you find inspiration in instrumental music of all kinds—from around the world, in different genres, from throughout history—this newsletter is a priceless resource.

And that’s my January! I hope your year started off with exactly as much activity as you want and need.


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