Mark Athitakis Newsletter #31

Pleasure. Ugh.

Someone on Twitter asked last week: "If you write about books/otherwise work in publishing, what percentage of your reading is for pleasure?"

I didn't respond, because the question made me upset when I first saw it. "It's all pleasure, dammit!" I said, flinging down a galley of another mediocre-to-OK forthcoming novel. OK, I…didn’t do that. (Just like I've actually never done that thing where you throw a book against a wall when you don't like it. Not my temperament. Also, I worry about ricochets, don’t you? Hitting the dog, busting a lamp...) Maybe I was upset because the question unearths some of these issues that I just tend to power through without contemplating too much---that maybe reading outright stops being fun if you make it into work, that if you're not reading for “pleasure,” maybe you're reading the wrong way.

But—-and I recognize that asking the question makes you look pedantic—-what do we mean by “pleasure,” anyhow? I've been writing about books---and feeding 80-90 percent of my book reading into writing about books---for so long I only vaguely recall what doing it any other way might be like. Sometime in the late 90s, I made an explicit decision that I wasn't going to treat classics as something I might catch up with during my retirement; I was going to start reading them now. Was this a commitment to pleasure, or to edification? The line was always pretty fuzzy to me; still is.

In any event, my reading immediately after that decision was almost comically determined and programmatic. I read the Bible cover to cover. I read the entire Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume 2. I read a lot of Czelaw Milosz; I read a lot of Philip Roth. I don't tell you about this ambitious reading with great pride. I read too quickly back then, too poorly---I approached books in the same collector-geek spirit that moved me to get completist about, say, Clash albums. And while there was a lot of pleasure in that reading---I discovered Portnoy's Complaint and My Antonia and Native Realm---the experience seemed to hone a certain kind of ruthlessness in my reading habits. It's an attitude that equipped me pretty well for reviewing work, where the pleasure of reading is always competing with the notion that you'll also be writing about that pleasure (if there is pleasure there). You're always reading as a kind of rehearsal for talking about reading.

James Wood said in an interview once that that's what a critic does---read in two ways, experiencing what a book is doing and how it's creating that effect. It's immersion, but not so deep that you lose yourself. I think what the Twitter poll was trying to speak to is whether people in the “biz” have the capacity to lose themselves. Don't you ever just want to read on one level? If you're in publishing, you may tire of looking at every manuscript as a potential commercial good; if you're a critic, you might tire of reading through the filter of interpretation, or trying to sell readers on a book, or put them off it, or just talk about what make it interesting.

But we people who "write about books/otherwise work in publishing" aren't the only people who behave this way, who read on two levels. Book club readers, people who write thoughtful Amazon and Goodreads reviews for no compensation beyond likes and follow-up comments, people who chat up the clerk at the bookstore counter about books, are also doing that work, no? For any serious reader, professional or no, the act of reading is about both the book itself and the meaning that we make of it. 

So maybe what bothered me about the question, beyond how it prompted me to think about what “pleasure” is, is that there's a bit of a humblebrag embedded in it---that we people who do things with books for a living are encumbered by all the thinking we’re doing, while people who don't read books for their job...aren't. But we all make decisions about what a book is going to mean for us. And critics and “regular” readers alike are both chasing that moment when a book forces the matter, demands to be heard and thought about. Fun.

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A few good things I read recently: Nikole Hannah-Jones and Wesley Morris' essays for the New York Times 1619 Project; Emma Baccellieri's profile of the keeper of the super-secret mud that is applied to every major-league baseball; Leslie Jamison's layover tales; Daniel Mendelsohn's interview with Poets & Writers as part of its ongoing Q&As with critics. Hanging on to this bit: "I can’t imagine any serious writers really think about pleasing their readers: You write to please yourself, to scratch an itch, to answer a question that burns for you." Also, I wrote about Caleb Crain’s second novel, Overthrow, a sensitive tale about love and the surveillance state, for the Washington Post.

Thanks for reading. Write me: mathitak@gmail.com

Mark Athitakis Newsletter #30

So I took a vacation. A vacation from the newsletter, you may have noticed. My hiatus was partly a function of an uptick in work, and partly a function of my ongoing thinking about how healthy it is or isn't to write for free. I guess I've decided it's healthy enough, for now, to write this. 

But I went on a vacation-vacation too: Last month, my wife, 8-year-son, and I spent a week driving through California, starting in Gold Country (memorable for a chilly but revivifying dip in in the Yuba River), then down to Sacramento, then San Francisco (where I was the subject of an interview that may or may not wind up in a documentary; more anon, maybe), then down to Monterey and Salinas. Steinbeck country.

The stop in Salinas was something of a last-minute decision---the only destination of interest there for me is the National Steinbeck Center, a smallish museum near the smallish downtown drag, and I'm not much of a Steinbeck fan. I dutifully read Of Mice and Men in high school, and I've read The Grapes of Wrath twice---the first time not very seriously after college, feeling a bit superior to its straightforward plotting. My second pass came about ten years ago, after I spent some time working on a project about Richard Price's novel Clockers. David Simon---ex-Baltimore Sun journalist, creator of The Wire and Treme, man with seemingly bottomless reservoirs of time with which to tussle with far-right dipshits on Twitter---has said that Clockers is “to the cocaine epidemic of the early 1990s as The Grapes of Wrath is to the Dust Bowl.” My second read after that didn't make me love Steinbeck more, exactly, but it bolstered by feeling that the social novel---the simply written social novel---has its uses, much as Woody Guthrie's songs about the Okie migration have their uses.

Still, I arrived at the museum mostly thinking of Steinbeck as an artifact, a remnant of the time when a novel had more power to bring the news than it has in generations since. (FDR explicitly pointed Americans to it, saying, "I have read a book recently. It is called The Grapes of Wrath. There are 500,000 Americans that live in the covers of that book"; even Reader-in-Chief Barack Obama didn't work so hard to draw a line between fiction and policy in his much-parsed summer reading lists.) The museum doesn't do much to alter that impression. After watching a brief video about Steinbeck's life, visitors are sent across a courtyard to the museum proper, which mostly presents Steinbeck's life and works as if trapped in amber. There are historical artifacts about Steinbeck and the migrants and cannery workers he wrote about, some bemusing---he carved a box out of mahogany to contain the manuscript of East of Eden he delivered to his agent. There are some videos of film versions of his work, with compare-and-contrast displays about the distinctions between the book and movie. There's some information about the controversy Wrath stoked, and a cubby that included a typewriter, which took some explaining to my son.

If you're a fan of Steinbeck, or just a fan of novels, it's worth a peek if you’re in the neighborhood. But it was peculiar to feel such a strong disconnect between a writer's work and his meaning---an almost effortful evasion of the question of why Steinbeck might matter today. Because he can. Driving from Monterey to Salinas, you'll pass a lot of farmland, and on our drive we passed a few groups of workers hustling double-time to gather up crops. Migrants, likely; underpaid, undoubtedly. Relevant to the messages that Steinbeck wanted to send about society and labor, assuredly. But the museum doesn't speak to that beyond pointing to his roots in the region.

Indeed, it avoids making much of an argument for reading Steinbeck, excepting his famous-writer bona fides. (Nobel Prize! Film adaptations!) It wouldn't be so hard, I thought, to replace some of those videos of movie and theater performances with present-day writers who might make the case. Simon, perhaps; wouldn't Bruce Springsteen spare a few minutes? I think of the working novelists who've made migrants and/or California part of their work---Valeria Luiselli, Elaine Castillo---and think clearing space migrant stories now would make the museum more meaningful and less of a museum.

Of course, I have no expertise in running a museum, and don't know what it takes to get people through the doors. (And to be fair, the Center hosts an annual festival with more forward-thinking programming.) But it seems that Steinbeck, perhaps more than any of America's famous mid-century novelists, deserves the kind of attention a living writer receives, the writer whose ideas remain in play today.

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Like I said, I’ve been busy. Mostly with writing. Among the pieces I'm proudest of lately: A feature for Humanities on Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West, with an emphasis on the peculiar cultural life Wright cultivated in the Arizona desert. An essay on the works of Howard Norman, read through the filter of his peculiar interest in the ghost story. Reviews of Jess Row's White Flights, an excellent set of essays on race and American fiction, Karl Marlantes's Deep Rivera hefty social novel about unionizing loggers, Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys, a slim social novel that's one of my favorites of the year. I've also been doing some teaching.
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Among the better essays I've read since I've been away: Chavisa Woods' essay on how we've gotten Valerie Solanas wrong; Lili Anolik's oral history of the literary culture of Bennington College in the 80s; Emma Hunsinger's exquisite coming-out memoir, "How to Draw a Horse"; Jody Rosen's deep-dive into the Universal Studios fire; William Langiewiesche's stemwinder on Malaysia Airlines flight 370; Rachel Cusk's essay on Yiyun Li's devastating storytelling; Claire Lowdon's defense of John Updike; Chris Dennis' up-from-addiction essay, "Eldorado, Illinois"; and Namwali Serpell on Toni Morrison, written months before her death but capturing the virtues and power of her innovations more strongly than any of the encomiums that I've read in the past week or so.

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Will I be back to a weekly routine on this newsletter? Find out next week! I'd like to, but we'll see. In the meantime, I’ve missed hearing from you; one benefit of writing for free, at least, is that you get more interesting email; drop me a line at mathitak@gmail.com.

Mark Athitakis Newsletter #29

Spoiler alert.

Front Matter

I’m not watching Game of Thrones. I don’t say that in the sense of “I’m better than your silly interest in Game of Thrones.” I say it in the sense of “I can’t afford HBO on top of everything else and the HBO Go password somebody passed along to me a while back stopped working so I’m not watching Game of Thrones and instead I’m waiting for the new season of Bosch.” But I enjoy reading people’s tweets about the show, which tend to unwittingly express a particular anxiety about cultural consumption: We want to have a “pure” and unadulterated experience with a work of art while also wanting to share in the experience collectively.

Which is to say: To speak of Game of Thrones is to be anxious about spoilers. But what’s a spoiler? “Giving away the ending or an important plot point” would be the common answer. The giving away is a function of time, though---spoilers have expiration date---which suggests that spoilers have more to do with cultural work’s value in the marketplace than any inherent artistic worth. If I tell you that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, or that Rosebud is Kane’s childhood sled, few would feel that their experience of The Empire Strikes Back and Citizen Kane has been wrecked. Enough time has passed that everybody who’s interested in those movies know the ending anyway. And perhaps just as important, those movies aren’t diminished by your knowing these things; is it impossible to enjoy Citizen Kane because you know about the sled, or even to enjoy it less?

Still, professional responsibility obligates me to take spoilers seriously and not reveal late-breaking plot points in a novel I’m reviewing. This got tricky lately in the case of Susan Choi’s new novel, Trust Exercise. The novel, concerning students at a high-pressure arts school, is about the warring perspectives of our teenage years---Choi explores the profound effects of how we’re treated and perceived in high school, yet it’s also a time when we’re most compelled to keep secrets, mindful of gossip and judgment. Choi artfully shows how that atmosphere of raw emotion can linger well into adulthood, and that’s all important to discuss if you’re going to explain to a reader what the novel is “about.” But that also means noting that nearly halfway through the book there’s a change in perspective---the novel you’re reading is actually a novel written by one of the graduates of the school.

Is saying this a spoiler, or just discussing the architecture of the book? A reader tweeted at me, concerned that I had ruined the book:

I didn’t think I had:

But like I said, these are judgment calls. As Laura Miller pointed out in her review of the novel, explaining the structure is essential to discussing its themes: “Spoiler-ish as this summary may sound, it seems a necessary spur to get readers unfamiliar with Choi’s work through the novel’s unexceptional first lap.” I strongly disagree with that “unexceptional” business, however; though the opening section gives off a whiff of unreliable narration, its observations of arts-school life are elegant and considered. No novelist would risk making close to half a novel bad on purpose, and for what it’s worth, I found the second half of Trust Exercise a little more dull and “plotty” as it moves toward its big reveal.

Which I won’t disclose, because good book-reviewing citizenship requires not giving away the ending. (This is why writing longer literary essays, or writing on older books, can be so appealing---you can talk about endings.) But not all spoilers are created equal, because not all works of narrative art are. Bad M. Night Shyamalan fare like Signs winds up sounding ridiculous when you explain what happens (Aliens! Water-averse aliens invading a planet whose surface is 70 percent water!) because bad art’s value resides exclusively in the kind of reveals that demand spoiler alerts. Media screener DVDs of the fifth season of The Wire---the final, no-good, garbage season---came with a please-no-spoilers note from producer David Simon: “[T]he newspaper arc will be a more intriguing and meaningful journey for viewers if they do not know, in advance, exactly how or why Detective McNulty or Reporter Templeton bend and violate the ethics of their respective professions, or how they ultimately are used by each other as a result.” This was another way of saying that those characters behaved so unbelievably that the producer had to stand in critics’ way in the hopes that viewers might find the show’s arc “intriguing and meaningful,” rather than the nonsense that it was.

The first half of Trust Exercise is a novel written by one of its characters. It’s such a good novel that it can bear you coming to it with this knowledge. You should read it.

What I’m Reading

Matt Jones considers what I’d thought of, thanks to John D’Agata’s About a Mountain, as the Yucca Mountain problem---how to communicate the existence of a toxic waste site millennia from now, when our environment and means of communication will likely be incomprehensible to our present-day selves. But the problem isn’t unique to Yucca Mountain. Michael Massing makes the business case for the humanities, as one must now. Colin Dickey explores themes of death and grief in the latest dire film version of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. In Poets & Writers, William Giraldi explores the ugly nature of writerly envy through the ages (print-only). Roxana Robinson, author of a fine new historical novel, Dawson’s Fall, describes the uncanny process of reading its audiobook.

What I’m Writing

At the prompting of the Washington Post, I revised Newsletter #23 into a longer, hopefully more considered riff about Millennials, novels, and how we perceive literary greatness. It’s attracted more than 100 comments; maybe I’ll read them someday. For On the Seawall, I reviewed Colin Asher’s new biography of Nelson Algren, which I highly recommend, though the book makes a stronger case for Algren as a social critic than a fiction writer: “As an advocate for Algren’s fiction, Asher can be as disappointing a salesman as Algren’s father was a mechanic — his discussions of the novels themselves are mainly extended plot summaries that make Algren’s characters seem like flotsam on a turgid river, followed by sketches of the critical reception they received. Those reviews were increasingly distant as the years went on.”

Thanks for reading. I’ve just started reading Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker; send spoilers and other correspondence to mathitak@gmail.com. I’m on Twitter. I have a website. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.

Mark Athitakis Newsletter #28

Bad is/is not good.

Front Matter

I don’t think bad books are all that bad. You should read them.

That’s not the same thing as saying I’m in the habit of giving bad books positive reviews, or that my judgment is (absurdly) off-base, or that I have a particular affection for kitsch. It’s more that as a reviewer, my inclination is to look for what makes a book interesting, even if it’s poorly executed. It’s a useful perspective as a reviewer—you’ll burn out fast if you just hate everything. (Probably if you love everything, too.) But I don’t think it’s a bad way to live as a casual reader either.

For instance: Earlier this week Sean Penn’s debut novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, came out in paperback. It’s bad. Not bad in the way so many debut novels usually are, with clunky plotting, weak characterizations, and overearnest messaging. But bad in a special way, interestingly bad, bad in the way the car Homer Simpson designed was bad, constructed out of half-baked rants and goofball characters and Kerouackian meanderings. It’s a slim thing that’s deceptively toxic thanks to the host of things structurally wrong with it, like a malfunctioning Diaper Genie.

When I wrote about the book for the Washington Post a year ago, I emphasized this badness, which caught a little attention. (Everybody loves it when a critic says something is bad!) That was gratifying, in a way. But every novelist has ideas, even Sean Penn, and I wanted to spotlight that too. “Penn is fixated on matters of populism and authenticity: Among Bob’s chief targets is a society that has been ‘marketed into madness.’ … Penn has a plain affection for the 1960s counterculture novel, from the let-’er-rip automatic writing of the Beats to Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ with its suggestion that an oppressive society will deem any outspoken, decent human being insane. In that light, ‘Bob Honey’ is best appreciated as the fever dream of a boomer who watches the news, cannot make sense of it, but cannot contain his fury at it anyhow.”

You could conceivably make a fine novel out of those constituent parts; Penn couldn’t. But it may be that decades from now, Bob Honey will likely possess a certain utility---its badness might reveal just how scrambled the Trump era made writers’ (and publishers’) brains while searching for the right language to address it. In that sense, Penn has written for the ages in a way that the author of last year’s consensus Good Novel hasn’t. I can’t recommend that you read it, but you should read it.

Writing in Standpoint, Theodore Dalrymple recently made a similar point: “The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that there is no book, however bad or merely mediocre it may be, that has nothing to say to us, for every book tells us something,” he writes. To prove the argument, he closes his eyes and selects a random title from his shelves, landing on a 17th century medical guide. (I would like a photograph of Dalrymple’s library.) Discovering his time has not been entirely wasted by this dry and obsolete tome, he doubles down and dispatches his wife to a thrift shop to find him something appropriately shallow. (I’m reminded of Wendell Berry writing in Harper’s about having his wife handle typing duties, a tactic one letter writer mocked as “Wife---a low-tech energy-saving device.”) Said wife returns with a romantic thriller; he doesn’t bemoan his fate or feel his time was especially wasted this time either.

I don’t want to be too glib about this or come off as an apologist for mediocrity. Bad books can reinforce blinkered, stupid, or dangerous ideas. But badness not only puts the good stuff into relief, but is illuminating in itself; literary failures make up an Island of Misfit Toys of tedium, awkward phrasing, overreaching, historical neglect, general idiocy. So many terrible things are possible there, and a certain committed reader can find entertainment in the possibilities.

What I’m Reading

Terry Teachout explores the enduring appeal of the Western. Laura Yan investigates Eugene Gu, a doctor/online activist whose online persona (surprise!) hasn’t jibed with his real-life behavior. Daniel Mendelsohn looks at Ingmar Bergman’s novels and finds a keyhole to both his films and biography. Christian Caryl writes on the artist and critic Josef Czapski, witness to the Soviet gulags. Adam Nayman and Elizabeth Nelson apply more critical attention and devotion to R.E.M.’s Reckoning on it’s 35th anniversary than seems respectable, but it’s an album I love to pieces, so.

What I’m Writing

I reviewed Susan Choi’s new novel, Trust Exercise, for USA Today. “Choi elevates this stuff above high-school-confidential fare partly through the sheer richness of her prose: Choi’s talent is for taking ineffable emotions and giving them an oaken solidity. When a nervous student hits the stage, ‘his eyes are cast up, anxiously, as if he’s aware he is barely retaining the fickle attention of God.’ When Sarah despairs of her feelings for David, she sneaks into his car for solace: ‘The hushed night disappeared from view and she saw only the interior skin of this filthy armor of the boy she loved.’”

Thanks for reading. Send your lists of your favorite least-favorite books and other correspondence to mathitak@gmail.com. I’m on Twitter. I have a website. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.

Mark Athitakis Newsletter #27

Notes from a flood zone.

Front Matter

So, are we in a monoculture or aren’t we? I’ve long figured that we aren’t. Music is broken up into microniches. Everybody seems to have written a novel or memoir or poetry chapbook. I get at least a dozen emails a day from publicists about forthcoming books. There are five brand-new stand-up specials I could watch on Netflix right now, and nobody can agree on which one of them is funny, or if any of them is funny. Beyonce---maybe we all agree on her? Or maybe the monoculture just says we’re supposed to agree on her, and then lots of us just go and do our own thing.

And yet, with antitrust prosecution a thing of the last century, what we consume is increasingly shaped by Google/Amazon/Apple in such a way that the “long tail” we talked about a decade ago is so attenuated that it hardly qualifies as a tail at all. The algorithm might be bringing us back to the age of three broadcast networks---or such a narrow mindset that we might as well be back in those days.

Or not! Because there’s still a lot of stuff out there, isn’t there? I confess confusion, prompted by Soraya Roberts’ smart essay, “On Flooding,” which makes a strong case for a creeping narrowness in our cultural discourse, as what few cultural writers are left circle sharklike around the same set of new movies, books, and music, chasing the objects that are most likely to catch our attention. Chasing anything else, when authority if not job security is measured in clicks, increasingly looks like an error. This behavior is less craven than the age of the hot take a few years ago, when writers were expected to produce opinions within 20 minutes of the existence of a thing that one might produce an opinion about. But flooding is more insidious too: It is, as Roberts puts it, “a mass torrent of the same stories by the same storytellers at the same time, making it almost impossible for anyone but the same select few to rise to the surface.” The best minds of our generation are putting their most thoughtful essayifying energies into the same stuff. Every week.

Reading at my usual pace, I typically finish one and a half or two books a week. If I wanted, I could map out all my reading for most of the year around titles that are consensus picks in the publishing world. Think of it as a pie chart with three slices—-two big, one small. One chunk is legacy authors---the Ann Beatties and Ron Chernows and Colson Whiteheads. Another chunk is relatively sure bets by lesser-known authors: the important new history book, the book version of that big New Yorker feat of reportage we all read (or at least shared) two years ago, an essay collection that speaks to our current moment, the memoir by that person who got put through the wringer two years ago. The remaining represents books by the bright young writers who’ve exited the MFA chrysalis and are being hyped as the next potential must-cover legacy author. Google “‘most anticipated’ and books and 2019” and you’ll get a bunch of lists that effectively break down that way.

For the average-to-serious reader, a few hundred books a year to choose from sure feels like fragmentation and abundance of choice. But Roberts is right to suggest that this state of affairs can also be a floodplain. You notice that more when the year comes to a close. “This is why every best-of list is identical,” she writes. “Everything is less white than it used to be, but all in the same way.” I get trapped in this myself. For a little while now, I’ve found myself covering the same book for one major daily paper that gets covered in a much splashier way by the same critic for a more major daily paper. Have I “made it,” or am I doing something wrong?

Yes, and...yes? I tell my editors to surprise me with suggestions; I do my best to pitch off the small-press titles that catch my eye. I raise a prayer of thanks every day that I don’t have to be a TV recapper. But it’s a job that, if you’d like to be surprised by it, requires some mindful effort. Roberts wants “more that is different, not more of the same differences.” It’s a distinction I suspect a lot of consumers of cultural criticism don’t think to make, but for we producers it an important part of the job, and probably an increasingly demanding one.

What I’m Reading

Brenda Wineapple explores Walt Whitman’s relationship with his very own Boswell, Horace Traubel. Lauren Oyler registers a defense of Andrea Dworkin against the sexist misinterpretations of her work, though that doesn’t mean she’s always easy to defend. Elissa Gabbert skips through some examples of great parties in fiction. Nelson Algren’s publisher explains what makes Algren’s work so relevant today (though it’s odd to make such an extensive case for him without quoting a single line from his work).

What I’m Writing

I worked the legacy-author beat this week.

I interviewed Bret Easton Ellis about his new book, White, which is half an interesting set of autobiographical essays about growing up a movie nerd and learning to live with the compromised film version of Less Than Zero and the absurdity of American Psycho’s path to publication, and half a lot of bitching about Millennials. “Everything is a lament for me….My whole career has been built on lament. I was the old man on the porch with Less Than Zero, calling out those kids for what they’re doing. Nothing’s really changed.”

And I interviewed T.C. Boyle about his new novel, Outside Looking In, about Timothy Leary’s early LSD experiments. “I do not do the drug now. I never had particularly good experiences. Yes, I saw visions, and the early parts of the trip were quite enjoyable, as with any drug high. But my experiences beyond that were exclusively negative. I think my mind churns too much anyway to be in need of such a stimulation or reinforcement.”

End Notes

When I was in college I played guitar and sang (“sang”) in a pickup go-nowhere quasi-punk band called the Jimmy Carter Experience. We were as awful as our name---one of our songs had two drum solos for some reason. But I had a good time chording and screaming my way through Husker Du’s “Target,” which is as good rant about monoculture and consumption ruts as I know. But maybe if I were less nostalgic I’d know better ones, no?

Thanks for reading. Send your lists of the best least-anticipated books and other correspondence to mathitak@gmail.com. I’m on TwitterBuy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.

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