What i’ve been reading and writing: March 2023

Last weekend, I suffered a catastrophic collision with a box of Girl Scout cookies that left me awake in the middle of the night suffering from what I believe a medical professional would diagnose as “a widdle bit of an upset tummy.” Lying there in the throes of a low-level pain of my own creation, I vowed to cut sugar out of my diet for a while, and to start ramping up my Saturday long walks again. 

The plan has been going well so far. It’s remarkable what a week or two without sugar can do for your mental health, andmy most recent 33-mile walk to Everett awakened my appetite for more long-distance walks this spring and summer.

The thing that I’ve realized over the last couple of weeks, though, is that I literally do this every year. Every single spring I fabulously overdo it on candy or cookies or ice cream or some other sugary treat, and the resulting sense of contrition leads me to decide that I have to buckle down, stop eating garbage, and instead prepare for another season of long walks. 

I don’t mind seasonal repetition. One of the things you learn as you get older is that years are cyclical, and you’re not necessarily the same person in December that you are in July. 

What I do resent, though, is the fact that I have to learn the same lesson every single year—I have to wind up on the coach moaning my way through a pint of Full Tilt’s Thai Iced Tea ice cream or a box of Tagalongs before I resolve to gear up for longer walks. I’ve done this dance well over a dozen times before, but I somehow never learn the lesson. Every year I have to Augustus fucking Gloop myself into a coma before spring smacks me in the face and I feel ready to get active again.

Friends, I’m turning 47 years old this year. 

I’m not angry with myself for never anticipating and getting in front of this yearly behavioral pattern. I’m just disappointed.

But Enough About You, Paul—How Are Your Dogs?

Wally is doing just fine, thanks for asking. Sometime in the next few months, he will hit the milestone of being with us longer than he was on the track—he’ll have been a pet longer than he was a competitive racing greyhound. And he’s a very fine pet indeed.

Obie is definitely feeling his age a little. Nine is getting up there in greyhound terms, and he’s got arthritis that requires him to take a daily doggy aspirin. The other week, he was sore and limping from jumping in and out of the car a few too many times in a single day, which was truly heartbreaking to see. But over the last few years, Obie has also transformed into one of the happiest dogs I’ve ever seen. 

Wally, on the right, is exponentially happier than he was in the first few months after we adopted him. But Obie is positively ecstatic. This is a dog who knows he’s a dog—and loves the ever-loving shit out of every minute of the experience.

I’ve been writing

For the Seattle Times, I wrote a preview of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference that was in town earlier this month. I had a great time at my many AWP events, and I enjoyed seeing local authors out and about in the world. I did not enjoy the Covid exposure alert that popped up on my phone several days after AWP, but a series of negative tests indicate that I seem to have dodged that particular bullet. 

Also at the Times, I wrote about Drink Books, a Phinney Ridge bookstore that pairs reading experiences with natural wines. I was a little nervous about covering this one because I don’t drink, but store owner Kim Kent provides a fantastic curatorial experience—the store only carries 80 to 100 titles at any given time, but she’s read all of them and she’s excellent at connecting the right book to the right person. (And my favorite taste tester said the wine was delightful, so there’s that, too.)

I still have a couple of secret comics projects in the works, and we saw some big progress on one of them this week. I’m working with an artist who I’ve been following since I was a kid, which is super-exciting and a little bit intimidating. Hopefully you’ll hear more about that one soon.

I’ve been reading

Who Will Make the Pancakes is a collection of five short fictions from Seattle cartoonist Megan Kelso, and it was a highlight of my month. I especially loved the first story, “Watergate Sue” which was originally published in serial form in the New York Times, and “The Golden Lasso,” which is a quiet and viscerally upsetting story about a young girl going rock climbing. Kelso is uncategorizable, but there’s a sense of magical realism to her stories—the idea that even in her most naturalistic scenes an angry gnome could wander in and put a curse on the protagonist. I’d put her short fiction against any of the best prose short story writers in the business today.

A couple of non-fiction comics really worked for me this month: Cheeky: A Head to Toe Memoir by Ariella Elovic is a guided tour of the author’s body, and her changing relationship to her body. If you like the comics of Aline Kominsky-Crumb, you’ll probably really enjoy this one. And Grace Ellis’s Flung Out of Space is a biography of Patricia Highsmith’s brief early career as a deeply unfulfilled author of comic books. I had heard that Highsmith went on a kind of date with Stan Lee—the mind boggles—and so I was excited to read this elaboration on that anecdote. I appreciate how Ellis is willing to let Highsmith be unlikable—she’s ambitious and wildly talented, but also misanthropic and unwilling to make any room for anyone else in her plans. This one is a powerful little character study.

I recall going to the grocery store with my mom when I was 9 or 10 (it was the Shop N Save in Gorham, which is now known by the more respectable Hannaford name.) I saw a woman in a ratty dress who was muttering to herself and giggling as she shopped up and down the aisles of the store—an unusual sight in rural Maine at the time, where people deeply cared about appearing normal. She was a compelling figure to me—and not a little bit scary, like a witch from a storybook. I asked my mom what her deal was. “She’s a writer,” my mom said, explaining that it was Carolyn Chute, who had recently become a bestselling author with her novel The Beans of Egypt, Maine. I often mark that as the moment when I decided I wanted to be a writer, too. I read and enjoyed Beans later on in life, but hadn’t read any other Chute books until this month. The Recipe for Revolution is a mammoth undertaking of a novel, the kind of thing which, if was written by a young man and not a 70-something-year-old-woman, would be called “ambitious” or “a magnum opus.” Which is to say that it’s very long and it took me the better part of a month to read. It’s got dozens of narrators—one of whom is The God of Mammon, meaning that parts of the book are narrated by money itself—and it’s about corporations, greed, militias, small town life, what it means to be a person in a community, and much more. I can’t recommend it with my whole heart to general audiences, but I can absolutely recommend it to anyone who likes ambitious, wild and unruly fictions that require a diagram or two to follow.

Terry Miles’s novel Rabbits is apparently an adaptation of a popular narrative podcast series that I’d never heard of—I’m a podcast fan, but fiction podcasts have never really spoken to me. It’s a book about a mythical elaborate secret game that unfolds across the world, like a conspiracy theory that has been laid out by a committee, with a single winner earning a huge (and also secret) prize. As a bonus, the book takes place in Seattle, and I loved discovering all the local landmarks sprinkled through the narrative. (At least once a month I think about how much I miss the Kingfish Cafe, so I was thrilled to discover that the restaurant and its closure figures into the plot here.) The story doesn’t pull together in an especially satisfying way, but I enjoyed the ride as the narrator tried to figure out what the hell was going on—if anything was in fact going on at all.

Rebecca Makkai’s recent breakout bestseller I Have Some Questions for You is a novel about the decades-old murder of a girl at a boarding school, and the true crime cottage industry that erupted from the soil of that murder. I see that it’s being billed as a “mystery” in several bookstores, and that doesn’t feel right—the only real mystery that Makkai seems interested in solving is why society is so enthralled with dead white girls. It’s a compelling novel, and beautifully written, but those who go into the book expecting the next Secret History—or even the next Gone Girl—are likely to be disappointed.

Bear with Me On This One

I had a dream a few days ago that I was attending a press conference promising to unveil a piece of technology that would change bookselling forever. I was expecting to see an algorithm or a virtual reality bookstore or something. But the technology was actually a giant robot suit that would allow booksellers to shelve books much faster than they ever have before.

The suit was ridiculously complicated—so complicated, in fact, that two booksellers had to climb inside it to operate it, with one of them riding on the other booksellers’ chest like they’re wearing a Baby Bjorn. When they were both in the suit, they were, in fact, superhuman booksellers—unpacking, categorizing, and alphabetizing books with speed and accuracy that the world has never before seen. 

But there was a serious design flaw: The suit was so complicated to put on that there was no way to take it off for bathroom breaks, so the booksellers just had to relieve themselves in the suits. Over the course of a day, they sprayed excrement and pee all over the floor of the bookstore. 

Then the next night, I dreamed I was watching a documentary about a world-famous literary editor. She was a tiny little woman with a German accent who only worked one month a year. Every September, she’d rush into the offices of her publisher and frantically edit a full slate of books to be released the next fall. The books she edited were always blockbuster bestsellers, and her success rate was so strong that nobody could argue with her eccentricities. Then October 1st would arrive and she’d disappear until next September came around.

The documentary uncovered the secret of why the editor only worked one month a year: She was born into tremendous wealth, and she spent most of her life traveling the world. But every September, she’d load her giant pet potbellied pig onto a container ship and it would sail across the Atlantic without her for a solo vacation. Without her pig, she was despondent. So she threw herself into her work editing books. When the ship returned, on October 1st, she’d go and pick up her pig and they’d continue their jet-setting lives together. 

I ordinarily don’t talk about or share my dreams in public spaces like this because I tend to think that dreams are meaningless and dumb—mental flatulence, I believe Stephen King once called them. But those two dreams really say more about my complicated feelings after attending AWP this year than any essay I could ever write. The publishing industry continues to use technology in precisely the wrong way, and America’s literary culture exists largely because a few enormously wealthy people happen to think books are cute or whatever.

I love books and writers and bookstores and book people. But it’s precisely because I love all those things that I feel really bummed out about the state of the publishing industry, which has (with a few notable exceptions) basically given up on the promotionediting, and cultivating of great books. Many of the biggest publishers in the country just toss new authors into the void and expect them to learn how to fly before the next seasonal volley begins. The only people who make real money off this dispiriting endeavor are exactly the wrong people, and that inequality only seems to be getting worse.

I left AWP feeling happy for the authors and small publishers who are managing to make it work, but I am not hopeful for the long-term health of the monolithic American publishing industry—especially in a time of unprecedented book bans. I simply don’t trust these corporate publishers to do what’s right and defend free expression when things get really hairy. 

Happily, I do believe that authors and booksellers and librarians will continue to fight the good fight against book bans and crass commercialism. I just wish they didn’t have such an uphill battle. In other countries, it’s possible for authors to make a good, middle-class living out of writing. In America, it seems, you either have to be a John Grisham-level success to make a living at writing, or you have to have a billion hustles running at all time—and you’re still likely to be living on the cusp of poverty. 

In short, everything about publishing doesn’t have to be so big, loud, and dumb all the time. I’d rather have 50 small publishers than one Hachette, and I’d rather have 500 working-class novelists than one George R. R. Martin. A better literary world is possible.

Anyway, I hope you either are or are not elbow-deep in a box of Girl Scout cookies as you read this—depending on your preferences, of course. I’ll see you next month.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s