About Ron

Rockabilly guitarist, writer, library technician, Ron fills the daylight hours with dreams of reading, well-behaved pets and the perfect dark beer. Reading interests range from humor to mystery, steampunk to travel writing, historical fiction to surrealism.

Music For A Lifetime

django-reinhardtThe year: Nineteen-eighty-something. The place: Bellingham. Our protagonist is a handsome young man finishing his studies in music whilst working in the college library. A mile or more from his modest roach-infested home sits the Bellingham Public Library, a bastion of free knowledge. Much to the delight of our hero, the building sports an eclectic vinyl record collection (an ancient form of music media, similar to 8-track tapes) ranging from field recordings of chain gangs to sea chanties of the Hebrides. It is here that he first discovers the music of Django Reinhardt and Bob Wills. And here’s the twist: I was that young man!

It’s true.

Bob WillsSome 30 years later, I still listen to Django Reinhardt and Bob Wills on a semi-daily basis. It’s amazing what an impact these library holdings made on my existence. Throw in Charles Mingus’s Fables of Faubus and Haitian Fight Song and we’ve captured significant musical influences to my later life.

At that time in library collection management, I would wager that audio selection was made to provide people with access to music they’d never find anywhere else (this was before everything imaginable was issued on CD) rather than to provide popular music for listening pleasure. And for me, this was perfect! I loved the Folkways releases of underwater Christmas carols and chants of the Irkutskian mud men. Although I might be misremembering those titles.

When I moved to Everett in 1987, the audio holdings were very similar to those in Bellingham. Perfect! And within a couple of years, a few CDs even joined the collection! It was around this time that music selection processes changed to some extent. Perhaps influenced by the initial lack of offerings on CD, perhaps reflecting a change in library philosophy, popular music entered the library in a big way.

But where I’m going with this ramble is: Bellingham Public Library has influenced my life for over 30 years! I’m so grateful that I was exposed to music that I otherwise did not have access to (no internet, no Pandora, no iTunes, etc). And here at Everett Public Library we try to provide a diverse collection of music that will keep you grateful for the next 30 years.

Wild and woolyOur latest venture is the Local Music collection which currently consists of over 70 titles from a variety of time periods. A good place to start exploring this new collection is the CD Wild and Wooly, a compilation of northwest music stretching from the 50s to the present. Many of its performers might not be familiar names, but they’ve all been essential to the growth of local music. And one of the most important bands found on this album is The Wailers, teenagers (well, they were in the 50s) hailing from Tacoma.

In 1959 The Wailers released the instrumental single Tall Cool One which went on to chart at #36 on the Billboard Hot 100. Other local bands such as the Dave Lewis Trio, The Frantics, The Ventures and The Viceroys (all featured on Wild and Wooly) also focused on instrumentals, joining in The Wailers’ success with hit recordings and sold-out performances. The Wailers’ momentum led to recording an album (The Fabulous Wailers), appearing on American Bandstand and touring the east coast. But there’s no place like home and after returning to the northwest the band started its own record label, Etiquette (which later helped launch The Sonics), and made a ground-breaking recording of Louie, Louie.

And this is just scratching the surface (vinyl humor!) of the amazing Wild and Wooly. Check this one out! Perhaps you’ll find a band or two to put into your life’s playlist for the next 30 years. And stay tuned for more posts on Northwest music.

Bang Your Head With The Sonics

Album collage

“The Seattle of the 1980s, in which Nirvana came to life, was a rainy city of lakes, rusty bridges, and more than a few disaffected . . . teenagers. . . . Jimi Hendrix had grown up in the city in the 1950s but had to go to London to get noticed, and not much happened of note musically in Seattle until Nirvana formed in 1987. . . .”

~ Encyclopoedia Britannica

Wrong.

Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

Recently at EPL we introduced a Local Music CD collection, and in the months to come I’ll be blogging about music in the Northwest from the 50s to the present (as well as cleaning up my cats’ litter box with pages from the Encyclopoedia Britannica). Suffice to say, music has been a happening thing in Seattle and its environs for many decades, from the days of back-alley jazz clubs to the current national success of groups such as The Presidents of the United States of America and Modest Mouse.

The birth of NW rock and roll was greatly influenced by touring R&B acts like James Brown and his Fabulous Flames. The NW circuit became a popular destination for such acts, and the teens who went on to form bands frequented these shows. This R&B influence combined with raw, energetic, and loose musicianship formed that early Seattle sound. Garage rock at its best.

The Sonics, a group of Tacoma teenagers, best exemplified the sound with screaming lyrics and drum fills approaching the speed of sound. Many of their songs were covers, but delivered with a shiny new reckless abandon. And their originals: The Witch (1964), Psycho (1965), and Strychnine (1965) among others, sound as fresh today as they did 50 years ago. Seriously. Word from the bird.

The group released Here Are the Sonics in 1965, Boom in 1966 and (strangely titled for a third album) Introducing the Sonics also in 1966. And that was pretty much it.  Band members drifted their separate ways, occasionally getting together for reunions. And the band’s name, without any of the original members, kept going into the 80s.

So people lived their lives, sold insurance, raised kids, painted houses, what have you, and FIFTY YEARS LATER!!! (2015) the band released another album, This Is The Sonics. So we got musicians in their late 60s and 70s playing in a band known for its hard-driving, aggressive sound. And it’s their best album yet! No one can rock harder than The Sonics do on This Is The Sonics. Check it out. Spin it. Spin it again. Be amazed that vocalist Jerry Roslie, age 71, sings the best hard rocking garage vocals you will ever in your life hear. Stare into the distance in wonder at the slammin’ guitar riffs, up-in-your-business bass lines, and Einstein-defying drumming.

That’s it, babies. Listen! Glory in the heritage of Northwest music, which is also contemporary Northwest music, which is really way confusing…  Just listen.

Crazy Man, Crazy!

As an avid follower of my blog posts you are undoubtedly aware that my 2015 has featured a lamentable dearth of palatable fiction. Yet even now things begin to look upperly. Finally I have achieved literary contentment, finding a tale about which to crow to the heavens: By the gods, read this book!

Bedlam detective

The Bedlam Detective by Stephen Gallagher is everything a book should be. Set in 1912 England, our main character Sebastian Becker, a former police office and Pinkerton agent, works for the British government’s Masters of Lunacy observing men of property (i.e. peers) whose sanity is in question. It’s a low-paying job with no prestige and Becker’s fortunes have fallen rather far.

This decline is due largely to the situation of his son Robert who is autistic but high-functioning. Sebastian and his wife are told that the boy is dull-witted, not suitable for a respectable job. Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth. The boy is brilliant (as he will demonstrate to his father!) but hindered by social limitations. Whilst living in America they hear of a school in England that makes the effort to work with children like Robert, so they quickly return to their homeland. However, the best job Sebastian is able to obtain is that of the “Bedlam detective.”

800px-Bethlem_Royal_Hospital_Main_building_view_1

Our tale opens with Becker looking into the case of a highly-respected peer, Sir Owain Lancaster, who, upon returning from a disastrous South American expedition, has seemingly lost some of the crayons in his box so to speak. During Becker’s investigation, two girls are abused and murdered on the peer’s property, mirroring a similar incident from 15 years previous when two girls survived a comparable attack. One girl (now woman) has no memory of the tragedy and the other will not speak of it. While investigating Sir Owain’s sanity Sebastian also becomes involved in the murder inquiry as he believes Lancaster to be a likely suspect.

Sir Owain, on the other hand, believes that huge, invisible beasts were responsible for the attacks; the same beasts that followed him home from the Amazon jungle; the same beasts that killed hundreds in his entourage. In fact, the only survivors of the expedition were Lancaster and his botanist, a man who is now locked away in a mental institution after attacking his sister. Hmmm. Huge invisible beasts. Alive while everyone else is dead. It begins to seem that Sir Owain’s sanity isn’t really in question, it’s non-existent. But does this mean that he killed the expedition party and/or abused and killed children?

So to summarize: sordid mystery, down-on-luck protagonist, lunacy and a cursed expedition worthy of Lovecraft’s or Conan Doyle’s pen. Add to that a traveling freak show, glimpses into the nascent film industry and a seemingly sane asylum inmate. The mix is stunning. And of course it wouldn’t work were not the writing exquisite. So if you’re ready for a tumble into the world 100 years past and the horrors that it concealed, by the gods, read this book!

Stranger Than, er… , Non-fiction!

As I search for non-fiction books to read, I come across many titles that, while not of interest to me, are unusual, surprising or outlandish. Welcome to the world of: Stranger than, er…, non-fiction!

HairSome titles are certain to raise an eyebrow, pique the interest, even if the topic is not compelling enough to warrant reading the book. Such is the case for Plucked: A History of Hair Removal by Rebecca M. Herzig. Firstly, it never occurred to me that there is a history of hair removal! Reviews tell of clamshell razors (that would mean an actual clamshell, not something shaped like a clamshell) and lye depilatories, leaving me to speculate what other horrific devices and potions have been applied to bodies in pursuitity of less hirsuitity. Also examined are the changes in American culture, moving from the perception of hair removal as savagery, to the perception of female body hair as signs of political extremism, sexual deviance or even mental illness. Heck, I just might be interested enough to pluck this book off the shelf.

WhittlingThe Art of Whittling: Classic Woodworking Projects for Beginners and Hobbyists by Walter L. Faurot
One thing we simply don’t hear enough about these days is whittling. This book, originally published in 1930, contains projects (and here I might note that I never would have conceived that there are whittling projects) such as continuous wooden chains and ships inside bottles. Hey, there are also instructions for making working wooden scissors and entwined hearts! Beards are back, maybe whittling could become the next hipster hobby!

BeanieThe Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute by Zac Bissonette
I must confess, I never could understand the soaring values of Beanie Babies. The creator of these plush animals became a billionaire, not so much through anything he did as through the feeding frenzy of collectors who saw the toys as their ticket to Easy Street. Stories of people buying tens of thousands of Beanie Babies, and even killing for them, fill this tale of what’s been called the “strangest speculative mania of all time.”

VietNamEating Viet Nam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table by Graham Holliday
When I lived in Malaysia, hawker stalls (food carts sitting along the roadside) became my favorite places to eat. Most foreigners avoided such places, fearing disease or bad food, but I discovered a world of cheap tasty delicacies that define many of my Malaysian memories. In Eating Viet Nam I find a kindred spirit in Graham Holliday, a Brit who moved to Vietnam to teach English but ended up searching for the best street food. The writing is humorous, and I was sold by the line, “As the pig’s uterus landed on the blue plastic table in front of me, I knew I’d made a mistake.”

CowedCowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment by Dennis Hayes and Gail Boyer Hayes
This book takes the interesting concept of examining whether cows, which are an extremely important currency in the U.S., actually make sense economically. We get cow history, usage, treatment and sustainability. I was hoping for a discussion of methane, but apparently this will have to wait.

In retrospect, I might enjoy reading some or all of these books. I ran across them by perusing the on-order non-fiction titles on the library’s website, and I must say I was amazed at the variety of topics people find worthy of book status. If you’re not a non-fiction reader, challenge yourself to find one title that looks interesting. Oh, and read it. Perhaps you’ll soon find yourself whittling a tool for hair removal that will sell by the billions until you’re rich and can travel to Viet Nam. With your cow. Stranger things have happened.

Failed Fiction Forays

I don’t usually set reading goals, but at the start of this year I felt that I’d fallen into a bit of a rut. A bit of a rut. A bit… (thud!) So I devised what middle management types call soft goals (unless I made this term up), meaning that it’s not so important whether I achieve said objectives. Mostly I’m looking to stretch myself in new literary directions, hence the vague guidelines for choosing reading materials.

Goal number one is to read fiction books written in 2015. Titles tackled so far include:

Pic 1

The problem is, other than The Rosie Effect, none of these books have captured my interest enough to finish reading them. This is a bit unusual for me, to hit so many titles in a row that I put down unfinished. And once again I find myself turning to comfort books: detective pulp, cozy mysteries and nostalgic books I’ve read before. Maybe this makes a strong statement about my current psychological state, but for today let’s just look at the books I have abandoned.

Doctor Death:  A Madeleine Karno Mystery (2015) by Lene Kaaberbøl
This book contains a perfect blend of elements I look for in stories: Victorian times, early criminology techniques and a strong female character trying to transcend the role assigned to her. And yet, after about two-thirds of the book, I had no interest in continuing. Perhaps the story itself is not compelling, or a bit confusing, but this is one I really wanted to like but did not. Briefly, Madeleine’s father is a coroner. She assists him but is not allowed to do any of the fun, dirty work that she wants to do. When he’s injured and a murder occurs, she is called upon to do work that would normally fall to father. Finally, she gets a shot at the big league (so to speak). My excitement for the book is rekindling as I type this description, but still I cannot overlook that the story was slow-paced and didn’t seem to move forward.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society (2015) by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Described as quirky, even “Twin Peaks meets the Brothers Grimm,” by The Telegraph, this book seemed right up my alley. And there were some odd moments that partially fulfilled my need for the bizarre: classic books in the library rewriting themselves until discovery and destruction by the librarian, an incestuous group of authors bound together since childhood who regularly engage each other in a brutal game, and the supernatural disappearance of their mentor (amidst spontaneous localized weather inside of her house). However, the quirkiness was more sparse than expected and I found this to be another book I wanted to like but ultimately did not.

The Last American Vampire (2015) by Seth Grahame-Smith
The concept – vampire mythology mixed with historical events – is a potentially engaging one, but its realization (being interviews with and narratives by the main character done up in a journal/scrapbook fashion) left me cold. Then again, I have a low tolerance for vampires.

Dorothy Parker Drank Here (2015) by Ellen Meister
What if the ghost of Dorothy Parker spent decades haunting the barstools of the Algonquin, waiting for a worthy partner to spend eternity with? Well, what if? I became interested in Dorothy Parker through a historical fiction series set in early Hollywood, so I thought I might enjoy this book as well. Admittedly I’ve not got very far into the book, but on the other hand I don’t feel motivated to continue reading.

So what have I learned from this exercise? I seem to have entered my dotage. Rereading favorite books and sticking with favorite characters is where I’m currently at in the world of fiction. It’s not a bad place, and I’ll continue to try new titles, but for now … what were we talking about?

Historical Photos Come to Life

Brue Building

Amongst the many treasures here at Everett Public Library are the historical digital photo collections maintained by the Northwest History staff. We are currently highlighting the King & Baskerville Studio photos which were taken in a short period in 1892. These amazing pictures offer some insight into what the lay of the land used to be in and around Everett, and what day-to-day life looked like. I would sum up this world with one word: mud.

Historian David Dilgard will make a presentation on this collection, Saturday, May 2 at 2pm in the Main Library Auditorium. This is your opportunity to experience early Everett in a unique and personal manner.

But if you want to sit in your own home and examine early Everett at your leisure, go to the Northwest History digital collections and prepare to be transported to a time when rough and tumble scalawags perambulated wooden planked streets and punched the occasional bovine. And enjoyed it.

Best of the (Half) Decade

Today I saw a list of the top 100 books written in the past half-decade. We were not amused. Items chosen were limited almost exclusively to adult fiction, and the fiction itself seemed to be fairly narrow in scope. So quite obviously it’s time for a better list. Created by me.

Books chosen have all been read by yours truly, which skews the list’s contents, confining it to items I find attractive. Obviously some wonderful books will be absent. But of the 80 or so books written since 2010 that I’ve read, diverse genres including autobiographies, humor, YA, juvenile, graphic novels, mystery, supernatural fiction, travel, historical fiction, and true crime have been explored. Allowing for a potentially well-rounded list.

And now I give you: The Top 13 Books Written Since 2010!

  1. Let’s Pretend this Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson (2012) Perhaps the funniest book I’ve ever read. Written by the Bloggess, a woman who recounts pant-wettingly hilarious scenarios whilst openly discussing her severe coping issues, this book is guaranteed to shock, perhaps revolt, and leave you aching from unquenchable laughter.
  1. Insane City by Dave Barry (2013)
    I have a soft spot for ridiculously complex, filled-with-coincidences plots. In a way, it doesn’t even matter what the story is about as long as the screwball comedy aspect is well done. Dave Barry is always enjoyable and this is perhaps his greatest effort. The plot is not even remotely describable in less than 10,000 words, so suffice to say: Florida, wedding, Russian gangsters, angry strippers, and pythons. Standard issue Dave Barry.
  1. At Home by Bill Bryson (2010)
    Bill Bryson has become my guru. Don’t understand science? Read Bryson. Need a better handle on the English language? Bryson. In At Home he explains how dwellings evolved and where names of house parts came from, all while imparting abundant information about western civilization. Funny, understandable, a compelling read.

Set 1

  1. The World’s Greatest Sleuth by Steve Hockensmith (2010)
    The Holmes on the Range mystery-solving series is durned brilliant. In this installment, the Amlingmeyer brothers travel from their usual Western climes to the 1893 Columbian Exposition and compete with famous detectives in the field of detecting. Murder, of course, ensues. Outstanding evocation of the Chicago fair.
  1. Yes Please by Amy Poehler (2014)
    Of all the autobiography/memoirs I’ve read, this was my favorite. Written in a personable, conversational yet well-crafted style, Ms. Poehler recounts life stories and shares bits of her wise personal philosophy, creating a sort of charming, amusing self-help manual.
  1. Bye Bye, Baby by Max Allan Collins (2011)
    Brilliant historical fiction that examines the circumstances of Marilyn Monroe’s death. Through Collins we get to know Marilyn, the powerful people she mingled with, and the potential truths behind her death. After reading this book I was moved to learn more about her life and death, which indicates to me that Collins did a superlative job.

Set 2

  1. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (2011)
    A plane crash, abundant death, struggles to survive, nefarious politicians and Miss Texas all mix poetically in this waggish disembowelment of the beauty pageant industry.
  1. Who Could That Be At This Hour? By Lemony Snicket (2012)
    For a fabulous description of this fabulous book, read Carol’s fabulous post here. I’m not a huge fan of A Series of Unfortunate Events, but I was blown away by this new mysterious series. Written for kids but equally intriguing for adults.
  1. The Rosie Effect by Graeme C. Simsion (2014)
    In this follow up to The Rosie Project, Don and Rosie are married and expecting. Don (who I suspect is on the extremely high-functioning end of the autism spectrum) approaches fatherhood as a problem to be solved, but Rosie is not sure if his lack of emotion will allow him to be a good father. Tension follows, communications break down, and the couple struggles to maintain their couplehood. A powerful, magical romance that shows how people of all kinds can enrich the lives of others.

Set 3

  1. The Yard by Alex Grecian (2012)
    Fascinating fictional look at the beginnings of Scotland Yard, the ridiculous caseload piled on the pitiful handful of detectives, and the ease with which murder could be successfully committed in the 19th century.
  1. The Dangerous Animals Club by Stephen Tobolowsky (2012)
    Stephen Tobolowsky is an incredibly versatile and prolific actor, perhaps most remembered as Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day. This memoir tells tales of his intriguing life, but is also filled with philosophical musings and complex ideas. Funny and thought provoking.
  1. Deep Creek by Dana Hand (2010)
    Historical fiction based on a true story. When Chinese gold miners are murdered along the Idaho-Oregon border, white settlers don’t really care. The Sam Yup Company, a powerful Chinese firm, hires a local man to solve the mystery. Elegant, descriptive writing clearly depicts an unjust time.
  1. Sailor Twain by Mark Siegel (2011)
    This is one of the few graphic novels that has truly engaged me, featuring beautiful charcoal drawings and a fantastical tale of love, riverboat travel, and mermaids. Memorable, alluring and ultimately disturbing.

Set 4

So there you have it, 13 books, one for each month of the year! Read, enjoy, enrich and prepare for the next half-decade.