Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (2017)

This one had been on my ever-growing to-read list since it was published in 2017, and while I wouldn’t say I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve only just read it, I feel something

Guilt, maybe? Like I’ve let George down in only now having read it, as silly as that sounds?

It has less to do with just how well-received the novel was, I think, and/or how decorated it has become since, and more to do with the fact that I’ve been a fan of Saunders since something like 2009, when I was introduced to his work in my junior year of college via his fascinating story, “Escape from Spiderhead.”

Blown away, I shortly thereafter dove into two of his short story collections: Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.

(Both are great, and well worth your time. As is his newsletter, Story Club.)

I don’t recall when exactly I started hearing/reading about this phenomenon, but right around the time I was diving into Saunders there was a lot of literary chatter about when he, the modern-day master of the short story, was finally going to come out with a novel. As if short stories were a lesser achievement. Or, rather, as if novels were the peak of literary achievement.

(Hint: they’re not. But, if you’re unfamiliar with the literary industry, this happens often. Short story collections aren’t necessarily looked down upon, but they aren’t sought after nearly as much by agents or publishers, as they’re more difficult than novels to both package and sell.)

I do recall feeling bad for George, though, for having to answer the same questions over and over and over again.

“When’s the novel coming out?”

“Are you working on a novel, then?”

A novel’s on the way, though, right?”

Full disclosure: George and I are not friends (though George, if you’re reading this, I’m down to hang). But that’s the thing with reading, right—when you read enough of someone’s work, and you get a feel for them and what might make them tick, and what sort of person they might be, you start to feel a deeper connection with them? You want to support them.

And so when people are badgering them about producing something big and grand and important, you want to be there for them when they deliver the goods and that which they’ve delivered is held up to the light, weighed and measured.

You want there to help defend.

“He’s a nice man!” you want to shout.

“You couldn’t pull off half the things he’s pulled off!”

“What have you done lately?”

And when you don’t, when it takes you six years to read—and by read I mean listen to the audiobook, with it’s 166 narrators (no, that is not a typo)… well, you kinda feel like a trash friend.

But by George(!) did I do it and let me tell you: George didn’t need me to stand up and deliver a defense of him and his work.

Every piece of praise you’ve heard about Lincoln in the Bardo is justified.

It really is an amazing book. And, right after listening to the audio version, I ordered a paperback copy because I had to see how the master put this thing together visually.

*The above Bookshop links are affiliate links. Any purchases made using said links will result in me receiving a small commission.

Film + TV

The Righteous Gemstones by Danny McBride / Max (2019—present)

I don’t know what plans there are for this show, for how long it’ll run, or anything at all of its future, but I can say that its first three seasons made me laugh an awful lot.

You can get all the info you want or need on plot by watching the trailer, or by Googling some shit, so I’ll share a few scattered notes here instead:

  • The cast is incredible, and every character is given their moments to shine, but I feel the need to single out Edi Patterson and Tim Baltz, in particular. To say that they steal every scene they’re in is wouldn’t be accurate—feels like an odd phrase, in general, if I’m being honest; don’t think many actors go into a scene intending. to steal it—but I do feel that they surprise in every scene their characters appear. Which, though I’m no comedian, seems pretttttty important when it comes to making people laugh.

  • Less of a surprise, but also still surprising: the photography in this show is quite stunning at times. For the sake of not spoiling anything I’ll mention this vaguely, but if you’ve seen Season 3, there’s an episode that digs into the backstory of Steve Zahn’s character, and, well, you kind of forget that you’re watching what is defined as a comedy. It instead feels to me like a thriller—a legitimate thriller. That’s due in part to the writing, of course, but because the camera is the interpreter of text on a page, something has to be said also about the way it’s being done here, and the humans making those choices. So, bravo to the direction of Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green, and to the cinematography of Paul Daley and Michael Simmonds.

  • As an indie writer, I can’t help but be totally into how Road House Pictures (founded by McBride, Hill and Gordon Green) moved their operations from Hollywood to Charleston, South Carolina. The three of them are from the American south, and, from what I understand, one day started asking themselves variations of, “Why the hell not?” It wasn’t so much a middle finger to Hollywood, where they’d all spent the much of the last decades of their lives, but a run toward something—the place(s) they wanted to raise their families, as well as the settings for the stories they wanted to tell.

  • Comedy is one of those things that I’m sometimes hesitant to recommend, because everyone’s funny bone is just a little different. And it’s one of those things that is really, really hard to muddle through if it isn’t hitting for you. So, before you dive in, let me give you some warnings:

    • If vulgarity isn’t your thing, steer clear.

    • This one seems obvious if you’ve watched the trailer, but if you’re sensitive to jokes about organized religion (particularly evangelical Christianity), you should steer clear.

  • If you do give it a shot, as I’d recommend with any new TV show endeavor, give it a few episodes before you decide whether or not you want to continue. Pilots very often just can’t do the thing justice.

Podcasts + Music

THIS IS YOUR HOST – Quiet Part Loud

For the most part, I tend to shy away from fictional podcasts. With nonfiction, I feel like I have permission to dip in and out with my attention while washing dishes or walking the dog, letting my brain soak soak up whatever information or entertainment it does. And if it doesn’t? So what. Fiction often feels different to me, though, like if I conduct myself in that way—the dipping in and out—I’m going to miss something crucial to the story. I’ll listen, and I’ll dip out, and kind of kick myself over having done so. Like I’m doing something wrong by not giving the author my undivided attention. But here, with a horror podcast from Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions, I was too intrigued to let it pass by. It’s weird. But good. Not easy to dip out of this one.

Episode 1 – The Divided Dial

Wow. So, uh, radio can be pretty powerful, eh? I’m personally not an AM radio listener, nor have I ever been—though I do dip into sports radio on the rare occasion that I find myself driving alone these days (plus, I obviously dig podcasts, which… are they all that different?)—but thinking back on all the tool shops and garages I walked in and out of in rural Michigan, and all the talking heads coming through the speakers on the shelf… well, it’s just fascinating.

"Blood in the Machine" – 99% Invisible

Maybe five years ago, I heard the term “Luddite” spoken in jest by a previous manager of mine, here in the UX / digital marketing space of my day job. I’d heard the term before, likely in a history course, but couldn’t really recall what it meant, nor did I feel compelled enough to look it up. Contextually, it seemed clear that it was something you definitely didn’t want to be. Something adjacent to “philistine.” After listening to this episode, however, I know far more about the term, and, well, I’m still a little surprised at how closely it hits to home here in AI-soaked 2023.

"So You Wanna Be an Outdoor Parent" – Outside Podcast

If there’s one thing I’m really, really hard on myself about when it comes to parenting, it’s making sure that my kiddo has time outside to play. I want her to fall in love with something natural. Dirt, bugs, birds, I don’t care. Just something that isn’t a fucking screen. We’ve lived in an apartment her whole life, so it isn’t like she’s ever had a yard of her own to explore. And that probably isn’t changing anytime soon. Compare that to my childhood, in the country, on a farm, with hundreds of acres to roam… and yeah, it messes with me, thinking that she’s missing out on ways to make those types of connections with the natural world. Or, rather, that her making those connections are inconvenient for myself and my wife. Because, well, they are. I mean, you try gently convincing a three-year-old—who has never loved the car, I’ll add—that driving 90 minutes so we can walk on a groomed trail in the woods is more appealing than their Magnatiles. Also try negotiating through their tears what it is they’ll be wearing for said hike (she had a big dress phase not that long ago, so prepare to say many times something along the lines of, “If we wear a dress, chances are it’s going to get ruined.”) as well as what toy they’ll be bringing along (and you’ll inevitably be carrying the moment you arrive)… all to get to the trailhead and sit on a nearby log and spend a decent chunk of the afternoon snacking on crackers and almonds. We’re building connections, yes, and it’s wonderful—truly, it’s lovely—but it’s far different than just opening the back door and letting her roam. This particular podcast episode provided me a bit of comfort.

Articles + Newsletters

  • "Welcome to Anxiety" by Mr. Troy Ford / Ford Knows
    • A passage I loved: “It’s a constant source of stress and can leave you feeling so perpetually off-balance, you will say, do and think things you don’t understand and often regret, poisoning opportunities, careers, creativity and relationships alike. It has been the biggest hurdle in my life by far.”

  • "Woodbine" by Taegan MacLean / One Word
    • A passage I loved: “My dad’s barn burned down in 2005. So the one John showed me isn’t where dad worked. And yet, I feel like I could still run into dad. When I open a door or turn the corner in the shed row, I expect to hear his laugh, see his face.”


Advice for Playwrights: Simon Stephens – Paines Plough

I’ve been considering trying my hand at writing plays lately, so I’ve been putzing around the web, taking a few things in about the craft, about what plays to read and whatnot. And I came across this guy. And wow, just look at his goddamn energy. It’s infectious. It’s something I do miss about my college writing experience, that type of energy, that level of outward passion for writing. I had a professor then who I’d put in the same ballpark and, well… you don’t run into that much in “the real world” as a writer. In a separate video I almost included, he also talks about the origin of the word “playwright,” and how a play, like a wheel, or a ship, would be “wrought” by the playwright. Which, of course, I dig, as I’ve always thought of writing as a job. A job I love, yes, but a job. Not some higher calling, not where the goal is to reach deity status. A job wherein you produce. A job where you are valued by your community, and your society. Unfortunately, that’s pretty difficult to find these days.

"when the director is reeeally good at their job" – CinemaStix

I had no idea that director Steven Soderbergh did this (“this” is answered in the video, but more context here might be helpful: he desaturated Raiders of the Lost Ark, removed the original score and replaced it with the soundtrack from The Social Network), but I think it’s rad that he did. Such a cool experiment. If you’re a writer, remember this: whatever type of writing you do, blocking is important. It isn’t just for film directors. I promise. I can still remember all the notes the professor I mentioned above left in the margins of my essays—variations of, “Where should we point the camera?” Two questions I ask myself constantly as I’m revising.

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