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.

De-tech-tives

detechtives

Recently I’ve noticed that television detectives’ detection skills have been replaced by technology. Between cell phones, email, tracking devices and the multitude of cameras that cover every nook and cranny of the earth, it’s nearly impossible for a modern TV criminal to operate in anonymity. This is a strange and drastic change from Dragnet days when phone dialing, ledger collation, footwork and thinking were involved in any arrest.

The YardThe Yard by Alex Grecian
What fascinates me is that, before modern techniques and technologies were created, police could catch criminals at all! In the novel The Yard author Alex Grecian portrays a squalid, horrifying London of 1890 where five-year-old children work dangerous jobs, living conditions for many are abysmal, and human life is held in little regard. Scotland Yard’s murder squad consists of 12 detectives who have roughly 400 murders per year to crack, and after the unsolved Jack the Ripper killings of 1888 public opinion of the police force’s skills is extremely low. Then the unthinkable occurs. A member of the murder squad, one of the men attempting to keep London safe, is brutally slaughtered. The team’s newest member is put in charge of the investigation, but there seems no hope in unearthing the crime’s perpetrator. Even after the Ripper murders, the idea of killing for pleasure is foreign to the detectives and they don’t know where to begin to find this new type of killer. But with the aid of Dr. Kingsley, the Yard’s first forensic pathologist (and somewhat of a Sherlockian figure) the squad makes slow progress, although the murders do continue. This is crime solving at its most basic – follow paltry clues, cogitate, and find a killer.

keystone-kops-granger

These 1890’s were a time when it was relatively simple to be a successful murderer. Police had few tools-of-the-trade and criminals were able to easily disappear in obscurity. Here are a few titles that examine various aspects of the infancy of crime fighting.

Devil in the white cityThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
While examining the amazing feats that went into constructing the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Erik Larson also describes the activities of H.H. Holmes, a Chicago serial killer who used the draw of the World’s Fair to murder somewhere between 27 and 200 people in relative anonymity. In fact, it wasn’t until he left Chicago, continuing to commit homicides and other crimes, that Holmes was finally arrested in Boston a year later. His Chicago killings, however, remained unknown until the custodian of Holmes’s Chicago murder castle (you’ll have to read the book for those details) tipped off the police and Holmes’s murder victims were found. This true story shows how easy it was to operate as an invisible killer in the days before advanced technologies.

Great Pearl HeistThe Great Pearl Heist: London’s Greatest Thief and Scotland Yard’s Hunt for the World’s Most Valuable Necklace by Molly Caldwell Crosby
This non-fiction account of an early 20th-century jewel heist details both the plans of the thieves and the methods used by Scotland Yard to catch them. In addition to being an engaging read, Crosby’s book highlights the importance of this case to the future of British crime fighting.

Poisoner's handbookThe Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
This entertaining book looks at the careers of New York’s first medical examiner and toxicologist. Surprisingly, these positions didn’t even exist until after World War I. Blum makes a potentially dull topic intriguing and understandable.

police corruption

As police forces moved into the 20th-century, corruption came to be accepted as a normal facet of law enforcement.

Breaking blueBreaking Blue by Timothy Egan
In 1935, during the dust bowl years, a spate of dairy robberies in the Spokane area resulted in the shooting death of Marshal George Conniff. Decades later, Sheriff Tony Bamonte of Pend Oreille County tried to shed light on the robberies and Conniff’s death. Author Timothy Egan paints a vivid picture of Spokane’s dirty underbelly and the role that law enforcement played in these crimes.

LA ConfidentialL.A. Confidential
This Oscar-winning movie portrays a shady LA police force that is rife with injustice and brutality. At a time when Hollywood was king, justice was elusive (put that on your movie poster!) and criminals often dwelt on both sides of the law.

victorian police

Certainly TV policing has little in common with reality, but then again, reality is far more interesting. So set aside your new-fangled DVDs and give an old-timey police investigatory book a try. At the very least, you’ll gain an appreciation for the accomplishments that were made with minimal means in less-than-hospitable conditions.

Pulp Rock

Once upon a time various musical genres – blues, country, honkytonk, western swing and others – amalgamated into an exciting new sound called rock and roll. The music was edgy, full of vim and vigor, and never boring. As time moved on, corporate lackeys watered down the rock and roll to appeal to a wider fan base and generate taller stacks of money. Later still, rock evolved into a highly orchestrated, squeaky clean entity, in the process losing its edge and becoming, dare I say, boring. Until roughly 1975 when bands such as The Ramones re-introduced the idea of some mates getting together, picking up instruments, throwing together a few chords, and creating exciting sonic art.

However, today’s blog is about pulp fiction. So place your seats in a reclined position as we journey from music, through a metaphorical slipstream, and ultimately land in the works of John D. MacDonald.

Rocket to RussiaThe Ramones, Richard Hell, Dead Boys and others emerged, in great contrast to the highly-produced sounds of Yes and ELP. Gone was the boredom of album-oriented-rock. A new frenzy of emotion leapt from these bands’ ineptitudes, and it became apparent that a satisfying thrill could be obtained listening to music filled with uncertainty; uncertainty if the band would land together on beat one, if the bass player would actually make it through a run, if the blazing guitarist would manage to finish his solo before the vocalist came back in. This was excitement! Disaster might rear its head at any moment, and this created a riveting listening experience.

Exit music, enter literature. There was a time when pulp authors would pump out prose at an alarming rate. The result was similar to my beloved rock and roll: a disaster lay lurking behind every corner. Due to the speed with which they worked, quality within a single book could vary significantly. When prose was bad it was quite bad, but when it was good it was amazing.

And this takes us to John D. MacDonald. He wrote thrillers, what one might loosely think of as private detective stories, often set in Florida, often featuring Travis McGee, a salvage consultant who finds missing things for money. McGee’s character is quite different from the typical private eye, although the morose life-view which permeates the PI genre is an integral part of his persona. What sets MacDonald’s stories apart are, mixed among the mundane and sometimes poorly-written prose, stunning observations presented in vivid wordsmithery.

So rather than reviewing titles or describing plots, I leave you with excerpts that reveal the essence of MacDonald’s writing style.

  • “We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody threw the girl off the bridge.” – from Darker Than Amber
  • “Good old Meyer. He can put a fly into any kind of ointment, a mouse in every birthday cake, a cloud over every picnic. Not out of spite. Not out of contrition or messianic zeal. But out of a happy, single-minded pursuit of truth. He is not to blame that the truth seems to have the smell of decay and an acrid taste these days. He points out that forty thousand particles per cubic centimeter of air over Miami is now called a clear day. He is not complaining about particulate matter. He is merely bemused by the change in standards.” – from The Scarlet Ruse
  • “It is strange how a man, totally naked, feels a little more vulnerable. It seems to be a distraction, an extra area to guard. Cloth is not armor, yet that symbolic protection makes one feel at once a little more logical and competent. Doubtless the hermit crab is filled the strange anxieties during those few moments when, having outgrown one borrowed shell, he locates another and, having sized it carefully with his claws, extracts himself from the old home and inserts himself into the new. The very first evidence of clothing in prehistory is the breechcloth for the male.” – from The Scarlet Ruse
  • “The only thing that prisons demonstrably cure is heterosexuality.” – from The Long Lavender Look
  • “He had detected a certain sensitivity, a capacity for imagination, in the girl in New York. But the years and the roads, the bars and the cars and the beds and the bottles—they all have flinty edges, and they are the cruel upholstery in the dark tunnel down which the soul rolls and tumbles until no more abrasion is possible, until the ultimate hardness is achieved. So here she sat, having achieved the bland defensive heartiness of a ten–dollar whore.” – from Slam the Big Door

coversSo climb aboard the non-stop express to MacDonald’s melancholic, intoxicating world. And while you’re there, give Rocket to Russia a spin.

Stranger than Fiction – A Gala for Everyone!

stranger-than-fic-narrow

In the Thursday Next series, author Jasper Fforde has created an alternate Britain where literature plays a prominent role in day to day life. Children swap Henry Fielding bubble gum cards; there’s a branch of the police who deal specifically with literature-related crime; and people change their names and personas to that of their favorite author or literary character.

These people would fit right in the EPL’s upcoming Stranger Than Fiction Pre-Mardi-Gras Gala, 7 p.m. on March 1st at Everett Public Library, 2702 Hoyt Ave.

Come dressed as your favorite author or character–or just as you are–and enjoy a taste of great food from Everett’s finest restaurants and music by The Wild Snohomians. There will be a no-host bar, and prizes for the best costumes. Tickets will also be available at the door.

So help the library raise money, enjoy good food, spirits and music, and indulge your dress-up proclivities in one fell swoop! Personally, I might dress as Stephen King… Hey, I already am!

Nostalgia, or, Whatever Happened to Beany and Cecil?

I don’t know if it’s a common progression in the first-world aging process, but I seem to have hit the part of life where I crave things from my youth, perhaps to reconnect, perhaps for comfort. In the world of books this translates into re-reading favorites, something I’ve seldom done in the past as I’m always seeking out new treasures. Perchance I’m searching for old friends to see if our relationships have changed. Whatever the reason, I’m firmly entrenched in a tour of previously-read books.

So here’s a bit of what I’ve been up to.

Old FoxThe Old Fox Deceiv’d by Martha Grimes
I think the first mysteries I read were by Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, but the first series I really connected with was the Richard Jury mysteries by Martha Grimes. I discovered these books about 25 years ago, and since then I’ve read every Jury title (with a new one due out this June!). The Old Fox Deceiv’d is the second in the series and contains the many elements that I so enjoyed when first encountering Grimes’ writing. Early Jury books often focus on the characters from a small town that Jury’s sometime amateur assistant, Melrose Plant, calls home. These people and their goings-on are at least as interesting as the mysteries themselves. As the series has progressed, the bit players have appeared less and the focus of the mysteries has turned much darker. I still love the books, but I do miss my “friends” from the earlier stories. Anyone who enjoys British cozy mysteries (even though Grimes is from Baltimore) should check out Richard Jury.

Dirk Gently bookDirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
On the heels of the fabulous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Adams introduced a strange detective, Dirk Gently, who appeared in two books. Not as uproariously funny as Hitchhiker’s Guide, these books are still quirky, dry and hilarious.

Dirk Gently DVDThe BBC recently produced a short series based on the character of Dirk Gently, and this inspired me to re-examine the books. I’m not too far into this one yet, but what I have discovered so far is a profound lack of Dirk Gently; it’s taking a while for him to find his way into the story. Whereas Hitchhiker’s Guide is a knee-slap-a-minute, Dirk Gently is a much more, well, gentle and abstract humor. One has to work a bit harder to get one’s money’s worth with Dirk.

TekWarRon Goulart, a writer not widely known, is perhaps one of the most prolific American authors of recent times. I discovered his quirky, humorous sci-fi in high school, and went on to read every title of his I could find. Recently Calling Dr. Patchwork (the first of his books I ever purchased) found its way onto my Kindle. Sadly, I’m not as taken with Goulart’s unique style as I once was, but I am enjoying analyzing his writing techniques (for example, conversations where every single sentence is interrupted by the other participant) to discover tricks I can borrow. While EPL does not have any of his entertaining pulp novels, we do carry books from the TekWar series which were credited to William Shatner but are quite obviously penned by Goulart.

My nostalgia has manifested in many other ways, leading me to watch old movies such as Rear Window, Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope and That Touch of Mink. Or to delve into finales and conclusions of TV shows such as The Office and The Mentalist. Pulp readings from young-adult years revisit me, including works of John D. MacDonald and Robert Sheckley. It’s a strange phenomenon, and I’m not enjoying everything of old as much as I once did, but overall the experience is positive.

I’m not sure what the next step or phase of life will be, but I do know that I’m not ready for pants that go halfway up my chest.

Yet.

Ten Books that Impacted my Life

Lately there’s been a post bouncing around Facebook asking people to list 10 favorite books. As an avid reader I gladly offered up a list, with the caveat that if I made the list another day it might consist of entirely different entries.

And now it’s another day, I’ve another list, and it is mostly different. So, more or less in the order I read them, here are 10 books that have impacted my life.

Mixed up filesFrom the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg
I discovered this book in fourth grade and was immediately enchanted. A brother and sister run away from home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My imagination was carried away as I pictured the kids exploring the museum after closing time.

Time out of jointTime Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick
It is 1959 and the world’s crossword puzzle champion lives an idyllic life. Until one day when he reaches for a light switch that is not there and begins to question all aspects of reality. This book has continued to disturb me for decades, but it also led to a love of the writing of PKD.

HogfatherHogfather by Terry Pratchett
Post-modernism, which I think of as taking something familiar and putting it in a new, unfamiliar context, is something that has long enamored me. Pratchett is a master of taking commonplace fairy tales and folk characters and throwing them into completely sideways situations. Hogfather examines some of those characters (such as the Tooth Fairy) and ponders from whence they came.

Red Mars
Red Mars
by Kim Stanley Robinson
I read science fiction almost exclusively for 15 years before Red Mars was written, and even with all of the great books I consumed during that time I never suspected that writing like this could exist. Granted, this is not one of my favorite books and I frequently set it down from boredom whilst reading it, but the sheer immensity of this exhaustive history of a civilization from the future is simply astounding.

Notes from a small islandNotes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
Travelers’ Tales India, a book sadly no longer in the EPL collection, introduced me to the magic of travel writing. Notes from a Small Island introduced me to the concept of “some books should not be read in public or I will be labeled a lunatic while laughing maniacally, ending my days in a happy room with soft walls.” Bryson is a master of imparting information while being hysterically funny.
Wodehouse
Anything ever written by P. G. Wodehouse
Screwball comedies offer a literary format which I find quite intriguing. P. G. Wodehouse builds on this framework with the most original use of language I’ve encountered. Even while enjoying the stories, I learned what dialogue could be like in my own writings, and for this I am grateful. Wodehouse is perhaps the most important writing influence on my humble existence.

Eyre affairThe Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
Perhaps the cleverest concept I’ve ever run across: In a slightly alternate reality characters in books are sentient, can move between books, and are part of a thriving industry that creates entertainment for those who read. Thursday Next, an actual living person, is able to enter books and influence the activity therein.  Mischief is afoot in Jane Eyre, and Thursday is called to rescue the novel before it’s too late. Fforde’s universe shows me the incredible level of creativity that can be achieved by a writer.

to say nothingTo Say Nothing of the Dog, or, How we Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last by Connie Willis
Time travel, comedy, Victorian England, suspense – a perfect mix! One of the funniest books I’ve read mixed with a superior treatment of time travel (my hidden guilty pleasure) and appearances by historical as well as fictional characters (the men from Three Men in a Boat) all create a kaleidoscopic chaos of pure adventure and entertainment.

Madison houseMadison House by Peter Donahue
Photos of Seattle’s Denny Regrade are shocking, looking like scenes from a war-torn distant planet. This historical novel looks at how the regrade affected people living on Seattle’s hills, the corruption that shaped the decision-making process, and the bucolic geography of Seattle at a time when people were scarce. This tale has forever changed the image of Lake Union and the University district that I carry in my mind.

Doomsday bookDoomsday Book by Connie Willis
Glory was the first war movie I ever saw where I felt like I understood how the soldiers felt during battle. Doomsday Book, another Connie Willis time travel story, has a protagonist who accidentally goes to plague times. She ends up in a small village, feverish and incoherent, and is nursed back to health by a local family. Because of the error in the time travel process, she is unable to communicate with her peers and is unsure if she will be able to return to her present. So she becomes a member of the small community and watches people die at a rapid pace. And for the first time I had an inkling of what it would be like to be surrounded by bubonic plague with little hope for salvation.

There you have it, 10 books that have all stuck with me in various ways over the years.

Perhaps you would like to share your list?

What’s Overdue? or Books I Wish I’d Read in 2013, Part 2

Kathunk!
Thud swoosh thunk!
Jiminy kathunk zowie!

That is the sound of my 2014 reading list, created from books which I’ve checked out but not finished, piling higher and higher towards the planets and such. And I can’t seem to even make a dent in the list because I keep finding interesting, irresistible books such as 11/22/63 by Stephen King, Curtsies & Conspiracies by Gail Carriger, The Undertakers: Rise of the Corpses by Ty Drago, How Music Works by David Byrne and Duck the Halls by Donna Andrews.

New unread books

I’m trying to change my reading habits so as to not miss out on any books that at one point seemed interesting, because once I return a book unfinished I seldom go back to it. The first portion of my 2014 list contains five titles, and of these I have so far read NONE. But am I daunted? Neigh I seigh, so I continue on compiling my list.

Universe versus Alex WoodsThe Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
Here’s one I’ve checked out three times, read a fair bit of, thoroughly enjoyed, yet set aside for other reads. A 10-year-old boy named Alex is struck in the head by a meteorite, which scars him both physically and socially, making him a favorite target of bullies. As punishment for vandalism that he didn’t actually commit, Alex is put to work for hermit-ish Mr. Peterson, and a friendship slowly starts to grow. But the story doesn’t start here, rather it begins with Alex at age 17 detained at customs with a large amount of marijuana. How did he arrive in this situation and where will he go from there?

City of TruthCity of Truth by James Morrow
Movies featuring people who are unable to lie (Liar Liar, The Invention of Lying) have bloomed in recent years, and the premise is an interesting one. City of Truth, written in 1990, is about a city called Veritas where people have been conditioned to always tell the truth. The result is a lack of tact, total candor in advertising (beef is “murdered cow” and car models include Adequates and Functionals) and generally amusing brutally frank communication. It is in this setting that Jack Sperry learns his son has a fatal disease and realizes that it might be in the boy’s best interest for Jack to lie to him. In Veritas, lying is not a simple decision; to lie is to become a subversive. This weighty subject is surrounded by abundant humor in a story that, although based in a fantastical framework, is actually a commentary on our very own society.

Janus AffairThe Janus Affair by Pip Ballantine
One of my favorite books of 2012 was Phoenix Rising: a Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences novel. This Victorian steampunk thriller features Eliza Braun, a government agent whose first move in any situation is to throw a stick of dynamite, and her de facto partner Wellington Books, an archivist with wicked mechanical skills and no desire to leave his repository. The Janus Affair is book two in the series, this time finding the gear-flinging duo trying to discover why British citizens are suddenly vanishing in brilliant flashes of lightning. Will they once again save England from naughty evildoers and make the Empire safe for its citizens?

Ready player oneReady Player One by Ernest Cline
Here’s another highly-rated book that I got a ways into, enjoyed, and put aside. In the near-future the world has become an unappealing junk-filled dystopia. Many people frequent a virtual reality called OASIS, a much happier place, where one can go to learn, socialize, play, and engage in various aspects of real life. There’s a rumor that 3 keys exist within OASIS, and whoever acquires them will inherit the greatest fortune ever amassed. Scouring this virtual world for the keys is not without danger, but there are also puzzles, romance and a large chunk of 1980’s trivia. So if I understand correctly, one can escape our mundane reality by entering this fictional dystopia, which one escapes by entering a fictional virtual reality … umm … yes.

And so goes part two of my 2014 reading list. Stay tuned as I continue to amass next year’s reading choices, and agonize with me as I attempt to push aside temptations (hey, I haven’t read the last book in the Scorch series yet!) and actually finish (ooh, new Bill Bryson book!) these excellent books that I’ve (I wonder what Steve Hockensmith is up to?) set aside. Will he? Won’t he? Only time will tell!

What’s Overdue? or Books I Wish I’d Read in 2013

2013 brought a great change in my reading habits. Without any conscious choice I found myself checking out great big bunches of books, reading a little of each, and continuing with the one (or ones) that tickled my fancy. The result? I checked out a whole lotta books that I never read.

As the year came to a close, I decided to look through the books I didn’t finish in search of hidden gems. After all, I’m usually pretty excited about a book when I check it out.

So what we have today, O Brave Readers, is a list of titles that I wish I’d read in 2013, and beyond that a list of books that I pledge to read in the upcoming months. I’m actually quite excited by this prospect as I’ve never created a reading list for myself and, after all, the books are all titles that I want to read.

And with that I present:  What’s Overdue? or Books I Wish I’d Read in 2013.

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
Red HarvestPulp detective stories rank among my favorites, so it is somewhat strange that I do not enjoy the highly-regarded Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Still, I want to like the writing of this legendary ink slinger. So imagine my satisfaction when I read a gushing review of Red Harvest, a story based in Hammett’s experiences as an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Butte, Montana. The main character, The Op, is called to clean up a corrupt town, Personville. But quell horreur, a woman The Op’s keen on is found murdered with an ice pick he recently handled. Now The Op must extricate himself from a murder where he is a prime suspect.

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga
I Hunt KillersI am fascinated with fictional serial killers. One of my favorites, Dexter, only kills really bad people… usually… and we generally like and sympathize with him even though HE KILLS A REALLY LOT OF PEOPLE AND CUTS THEM UP! But we like him. Now there’s a YA book, I Hunt Killers, about a nice teenager named Jazz whose father is an infamous serial killer. He even forces Jazz to witness (and perhaps participate in?) his killings. Jazz begins to wonder if he is destined to follow in daddy’s footsteps. As dark as this all sounds, the book is described as being consistently hilarious. Comedy and serial killing – it makes my list!

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett
Gideon SmithI consider myself a trend-bucker, but steampunk has me by the islets of Langerhans. If there’s a zeppelin, silly old-fashioned names and adventure, well sir, I want to read about it. Set it in England, all the better! In Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, Queen Victoria rules most of the world, including the east coast of America. Gideon loves penny dreadfuls penned by Lucian Trigger, and when his father disappears he commences a long journey to London to find Captain Trigger. Along the way he meets Bram Stoker (who blames vampires for the father’s disappearance), mummies, and a clockwork girl.  And upon finding Captain Trigger, a further journey to Egypt leads to encounters with sky-pirates, frog-faced hordes, and a variety of historical characters. Will Gideon be the hero that Victoria’s empire needs?

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
Dog StarsIn a world where most people have been killed by influenza, Hig and his dog fly a 1956 Cessna around their abandoned airfield in a small corner of the land formerly known as Colorado. One day he receives a radio transmission and Hig decides to give up the life he’s been living in order to find the broadcast’s source. Thus begins an adventure filled with risk, shattered hopes and potential happiness.


Snapper
 by Brian Kimberling
SnapperI’ve always loved stories set in the cozy small towns that probably never really existed. Add quirky characters to the mix and I’m sold. In Snapper we find Nathan, a bird researcher, arriving in a small Indiana town filled with peculiar citizens and animals. Here, in one place, he finds both love and “Thong Thursdays”. But mostly he finds birds and an ever-unfolding life heading down unexpected paths.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Books I Wish I’d Read in 2013!

A Nice Jacket (tie is optional)

In a recent blog, Lisa confessed to judging books by their covers. Now it is my turn to enter the confessional. Please don’t judge me.

I’m a browser.

Sure, I read reviews and get excited by their eloquent descriptions. Inevitably, in a state of rapture I’ll put a reviewed book on hold, sometime later I’ll be notified of its arrival, and sure as shootin’ I’ll have no memory of placing the hold and no interest in the book. It’s either not a genre I read or the description sounds depressing or the colors on the jacket clash. Perhaps at the time an epic intergenerational romance between a potato bug and a budgie tickled a particular nerve, but now it just seems so overdone.

So yes, I browse. And typically I look for authors that are new to me rather than tried-and-true scribes who would all but guarantee an enjoyable reading experience. My selection process is rather complicated and technical, but I’ll try to boil it down:

 The books I select must have appealing jackets.
With quirky artwork. And a nice font.

Thus I end up with some unusual reading material, things that I would not necessarily choose from a review, and have the added bonus that the book is in hand and can be read immediately (before I forget why I was attracted).

It’s always interesting in the line of duty to rediscover a book that I’d found through browsing but had since forgotten. Here are a few titles that I read in the mists of yesteryear and recently rediscovered on the shelf.

The Scheme for Full Employment by Magnus Mills Scheme for full employment
How do they create full employment in the UK? By building factories that make parts for the vans that drive between the factories to deliver the parts that the vans need as they wear out delivering parts for the vans. Got it? This system works perfectly until the company’s employees break into two different ideological groups and mess things up.

IntoxicatedIntoxicated by John Barlow
In 1860’s England an entrepreneurial hunchback midget engages the help of a businessman to create an exciting new elixir using rhubarb and coca leaf. The process of coming up with the perfect formula for Rhubarilla is described in great detail, shedding some light on a practice that is taken for granted in our modern industrial world.

The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl by Tim Pratt Rangergirl
Marzi is the night manager of a coffeehouse, but her true love is cartooning. Specifically, she creates The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, a neo-western cowpunk adventure. More and more, Marzi starts seeing the world through Rangergirl’s eyes. One day she finds a secret door in the coffeehouse that leads to … well, a strange and dangerous place created by Marzi’s mind. Both the “real” world and the world behind the door are in grave danger, and Rangergirl is the only one who can save the day.

gaudeamusGaudeamus by John Barnes
Author John Barnes writes a story in which the main character, science fiction author John Barnes, is approached by an old friend who spins a wild tale of telepathy pills, Native Americans dressed in clown suits, and an enigmatic technology called Gaudeamus. Strangely enough, Barnes is already deeply involved with a Web cartoon called Gaudeamus that makes references to his friend’s adventures. Gaudeamus the book mixes bits of autobiographical material from Barnes’ life into a fantastical plot to create a unique reading experience.

Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi agent to the stars
Many books and movies speculate on what would happen when humans and an alien race meet for the first time. Agent to the Stars is a first-contact story where the peaceful aliens, gelatinous blobs who communicate through foul odors, are savvy enough to know that earthlings will find them unpleasant. So, before revealing themselves to the entire human race, they hire an up-and-coming Hollywood agent to create a positive image for their people.

So there you have it: a collection of admittedly weird books that I never would have discovered without walking the library’s aisles. If this is not your typical method of book selection, give it a try. Perhaps you’ll soon discover your own version of foul-smelling gelatinous blobs that will burrow their way into your heart.

Teen Angst – No Longer Just for Kids!

Here at Everett Public Library we have an ever-growing Young Adult section which caters primarily to teenagers. This relatively new category in the book world did not exist when I was a stripling, back in those times when it snowed every day and the trolley cars had cured hams for wheels.

One of the functions of young adult literature is to explore the feelings of alienation that teens typically experience. When I trod the boards of this age group I read science fiction almost exclusively, and I think that in a way this genre catered to the estranged youth of my generation. Sci-fi books frequently featured characters who felt alone and unloved or had no family or had a seemingly impossible quest to fulfill. The protagonists were frequently underdogs.

As I matured chronologically, sci-fi began to lose its appeal and other genres became the mainstay of my reading. Which is not to say that as an early-middle-aged-elderly-young-person I don’t still feel isolated, awkward and uncapable. I just read different books.

But now I regress, and once again I’m reading a lot of young adult literature. Perhaps because it’s a new-ish genre (which maybe isn’t even the right word), there is a freshness and frisson of creativity in the best young adult books (of course there’s also a ton of dreck) which I often find missing in adult literature. I’m definitely not choosing these tomes to embrace the main character’s sense of aloneness, I simply enjoy the books.

Two titles that I’ve recently come across, which initially don’t seem closely related, have struck me as variations on a theme: Every Day by David Levithan and Boy Nobody by Allen Zadoff.

Every dayIn Every Day, the main character is, well, really hard to describe. Each morning, A (the name he/she has taken) wakes up in a different 16-year-old’s body. Male, female, straight, gay, injured, terminally ill, an accomplished athlete. A, who I guess I’d have to think of as a bodiless soul, is the same regardless of whose body he (gotta go with “he” to simplify the pronoun situation here) inhabits, but he also has access to that person’s memories. A simply tries to make it through each day without messing up that person’s life. It’s not possible to create relationships because the next day he will be in a different body in a different place. This might sound bizarre and annoying, but it’s just normal life for A. Until the day he meets Rhiannon and begins to fall in love with her. Going against everything he’s always stood for, A tries to build a relationship with Rhiannon while moving from body to body.

Boy NobodyBoy Nobody introduces a 16-year-old who suffers from a different kind of alienation. At age 12 the unnamed protagonist is kidnapped by the organization that killed his parents. They train him to be the perfect assassin, and when his education is complete he goes to work for them. For each job he assumes a new identity, infiltrates a new group of “friends”. The lifestyle of a killer does not allow meaningful relationships to develop. Eventually, much like A in Every Day, Boy Nobody falls in love with the daughter of one of his targets. He is torn between being faithful to the organization and completing his mission, or running off with this girl and starting a new life.

Although these two books are very different, they both feature solitary people who are forced into isolated existences, people who seek out forbidden relationships even while knowing that they’re certain to be doomed. This is a pretty strong statement about basic human needs and the resiliency of the human spirit in impossible circumstances. It’s ultimately a hopeful message, which is always appreciated by insecure, angst-ridden peoples of all ages.

Ron

Staff Picks and Pans

As one considers which book to read this week, one must wrestle with the multi-headed serpent of leisure temptations, i.e. whether to play centipede on one’s game boy whilst texting 43 close, close friends and listening to Pandora spew the syrupy smooth stylings of Martin Denny, or to simply read a non-interactive, made-from-paper, silent, perhaps odiferous book.

Once the concept of a book is chosen, a specific title must be selected. Some readers return to favorite authors or genres, others wander the shelves looking for shiny covers. Some limit their choices by deciding NOT to read certain things. Today we look at how members of the blog team choose and/or not choose reading materials. We start with Lisa.

Lisa
I think one of the biggest revelations I had when I hit my 30’s was that I didn’t have to be bullied, cajoled or guilted into reading books to satisfy someone else’s expectations. Never again! Reading would now be on my own terms. This isn’t to say that I don’t value a heads up from like-minded readers. Still, I occasionally find myself pages-deep into a hopeless case, ready to put it down for good. Thanks to Ron bringing the topic out into the open, I feel like I can come clean about a couple of my abandoned reads.

The selfish geneWhen I was doing my anthropology undergrad I was assigned to read portions of The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. I wanted to like the book and tried my hardest to do so, but I had a problem with the writing voice. I’ve never been able to get past the undercurrent of arrogance that seems to pervade Dawkins’ writings. I’ve even tried to pick up his other titles but have had the same result. Even though I appreciate the point of view that he’s trying to contribute to the dialogue about science, evolution, and man’s place in the world, I always wind up thinking he’d be more persuasive if his arguments didn’t sound like attacks.

Tell the wolves

My second abandoned read was an indirect recommendation from a friend, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt. I decided to pick it up because I liked the cover art. I know – I judge books by their covers. I swear it works a lot of the time and could talk your ear off about my theory on why. Unfortunately this time it failed. To be honest, I should have known better; this friend and I have very different tastes. The problem with Wolves is my own. If something is described as a ‘moving story of love, grief, and renewal,’ I should know that I’m not going to be into it. Same goes for anything considered a coming of age story, unless the person who is coming of age happens to do magic or live in space. (Sorry, Anita – it’s not you, it’s me!)

Richard offers a different take on reading choices.

Richard
I don’t think of myself as having many rules concerning what I will and will not read. There is one, however, that seems pretty solid: I shy away from longer works. When I notice a large number of pages or an intimidating thickness to a book, a voice in the back of my head whispers: Is it really worth all that reading time? Here is an example:

Mailman: a Novel by J. Robert Lennon
MailmanI should like this book. The plot, centering on a disgruntled and isolated mailman in a small upstate New York town, is my kind of thing. (Yes, I have issues). The writing style is cutting, cynical and well crafted. Another favorite. So why did I find my attention wandering about 100 pages in? I chalk it up to the 400 pages I had left to go and a long list of “to read” books. It is now on a slightly shorter list of “books I should get back to someday.”

There does seem to be an exception to my inability to commit to longer works. When it comes to historical non-fiction, especially social history, I can read and read and read. One of the latest that I finished is:

The Australians: Origins to Eureka by Thomas Keneally
Australians
To my shame, I know almost nothing of Australian history so I decide to pick up this book to fill in my knowledge gap. Despite the length, clocking in at 628 pages, and rather bland title I never found my attention wandering once while reading this tome. Jettisoning a strict linear timeline, Keneally instead tells the individual stories and circumstance of the ordinary as well as the “historically significant” people who shaped Australia’s early history. I’m actually excitedly waiting for volume two. Go figure.

In conclusion? Everyone has their own set of criteria for choosing (or not choosing) books. It’s interesting to see how others think, perhaps to be influenced by their thought processes, and ideally to be stretched into examining reads outside of one’s comfort zone. Regardless, read and read and read. The game boy can wait till later.

Ron