Reader’s Corner: Living in the Worst Place in America

ifyoulivedhere-bookcover

One of the year’s more interesting books is Christopher Ingraham’s If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home By Now. A data reporter for the Washington Post, Ingraham became the  focus of some viral blowback after publishing a story in 2015 about how federal government-compiled data showed that Red Lake County in Minnesota was supposedly the worst place in America to live.

The residents were not happy. He went to visit, ended up moving his family there, and wrote a book about the experience.

My interview with Ingraham ran in Publishers Weekly.

Writer’s Desk: Be Humble, Yet Great

Back in 2010, Wild author and backpacker extraordinaire Cheryl Strayed was still writing the “Dear Sugar” advice column for The Rumpus. She received a lengthy and pained missive from a self-described “high-functioning headcase” who was depressed over not being able to write a book.

Strayed’s response is beautiful, funny, dirty, dead-solid-right-on, and worth reading in its entirety. But here’s the gist of her explanation about how she finally got over her issues and wrote her first book, what my journalism-school profs would call the “nut graf”:

I’d finally been able to give it because I’d let go of all the grandiose ideas I’d once had about myself and my writing—so talented! so young! I’d stopped being grandiose. I’d lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely no-where-in-league-with-the-writers-I’d-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do…

It’s great advice. Know you’re awesome. But remember that you’re never going to be the most awesome. Be okay with failing, sharpen your pencil, and march into that arena.

Nota Bene: Skip Prime Day?

Next Monday and Tuesday, Amazon is having its annual Prime Day sale (shouldn’t that be Prime Days?).

For many, this provides an opportunity to load up on all the consumer goods they want and don’t need (100″ TV, voice-operated device that records everything you say and sends it back to Amazon’s server farms for future use by…?). For others it’s an understandably good time to save a few well-needed dollars buying essentials they actually need (diapers, clothes for the kids, food).

But of course, it’s not so simple as a great deal. John Oliver recently broke down what it’s like to work at an Amazon warehouse, where things get particularly Dickensian during the run-up to Prime Day(s):

And now some workers at Amazon’s facility in Shakopee, Minnesota are planning a strike to protest working conditions.

Over at Moby Lives, Ryan Harrington—who noted that some white-collar Amazon workers are flying to Shakopee to join the strike—used the situation to make a helpful suggestion for what to do come Prime Day: Maybe shop somewhere else that day(s).

That applies particularly to books. The American Booksellers Association noted a number of things that your local indie store provides that Amazon, whatever your feelings about them, simply cannot (union labor, drag queen storytime, a cute place to get engaged).

One thing not on their list that absolutely should be: Bookstore cats.

Reader’s Corner: Summer Graphic Novels

I reviewed three new graphic novels—well, a graphic memoir of self-discovery and heartache by Ulli Lust, one immersive graphic biography about Stephen Hawking, and George Takei’s internment-camp memoir, to be precise—in a summer roundup for this weekend’s book section of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

They’re all smart, absorbing reads and well worth your time.

Check out the reviews here.

Screening Room: ‘Sword of Trust’

swordoftrust
(IFC Films)

In the new comedy from Lynn Shelton (Humpday), podcaster, comic, and Glow star Marc Maron plays a disgruntled pawn shop owner who gets sucked into a screwball plot about Civil War truthers when he comes across a rare sword.

Sword of Trust opens this week. My review is at PopMatters:

Sword of Trust is in many ways a quintessentially Southern movie. But that sensibility is primarily expressed in the laconic humor and slippery slides from bonhomie to violence. Shelton expends little effort on a cinematic sense of place, aside from some melancholic insets of faded storefronts around the Birmingham, Alabama pawn shop where the action takes place. That is, except for the obsession with the Civil War, or as some characters might characterize it, “Thuh Wah of Nawthun Aggression”…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Sea of Shadows’

The new documentary Sea of Shadows uses the incredible story of how environmental activists and the Mexican military are fighting cartels to save an endangered whale to highlight what the extinction of one species means for the future.

Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Richard Ladkani (The Ivory Game), Sea of Shadows opens this Friday. My review is at Slant:

The whale in question is the vaquita, a dolphin-like creature endemic to the Gulf of California. At the time of this film’s making, there were most likely less than 15 left alive. Not a target of hunting themselves, the vaquitas had the bad luck of swimming in the same waters as the heavily fished totoaba and dying in the nets meant to catch their more valuable neighbors. The vaquitas are ultimately collateral damage in an illegal fishing scheme driven by greed, economic insecurity, failing security apparatuses, interstate organized crime, and more…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Walk to Run

In his autobiography Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen explains that when it came time to write that album, he knew it was a make-or-break moment for his career. It couldn’t just succeed, it had to break through. So, he took his time. Per Justin Cox at The Writing Cooperative:

It took Springsteen six months to get Born to Run on paper. Six months for 344 words. The words had to stew. They had to develop. Then they had to be finessed and rearranged until they properly told the story that Springsteen envisioned.

Not every story needs to take half a year, but there is something to be said for not rushing. Spend time with the stories you’re working on. Pause them. Come back to them. Don’t hit the publish button until the story matches the vision in your mind.

It’s all about finding the right balance. Procrastination is one thing. You cannot just mull a piece over forever. Get things down on paper. Do the work. But if it doesn’t feel right, keep working the piece until it does.

You’ll know.