A Novel Debut

Pity the poor debut novel. First it has to overcome the almost impossible odds of actually getting published. No mean feat with an unknown author. Then it has the daunting task of competing for a reader’s attention with books that are from established writers who have a dedicated fan base and a big publicity machine behind them. All these obstacles have a benefit for the reader though: debut novels are often unconventional. To grab a reading audience, an unknown author will often go out of their way to establish a unique style, theme or ambiance. Sometimes this flops, but other times it produces a unique and mesmerizing reading experience. I’ve never found a foolproof way of discerning the good from the bad, but recently I’ve come across two debut novels that are well worth your reading time.

Why Are You So Sad? by Jason Porter
whyareyousosadRaymond Champs, an illustrator of instructional manuals at a large furnishing company, is not a happy camper. He casts a jaundiced eye at the world around him and sees little to celebrate and much to criticize with biting humor.  Instead of seeing his resulting despair as a personal problem, however, he becomes convinced that his condition is universal. Everybody on the planet is suffering from clinical depression, they just don’t realize it. In order to prove his theory, and save his sanity, he decides to create a questionnaire to probe his coworkers supposed afflictions. To get them to actually fill the form out, he claims it is from Human Resources. Not a smart career move, but it gets the job done. His coworkers begin scratching their heads and trying to figure out how to answer questions such as:

If you were a day of the week, would you be a Monday or Wednesday?
Are you for the chemical elimination of all things painful?
Do you think we need more sports?

Porter’s novel is definitely a modern office satire and any fellow denizen of bureaucratic culture, be it corporate or governmental, will find themselves chuckling throughout the work. The author clearly also has an absurdist bent and likes to play with language, especially dialog, and plot. This turns what could have been a more conventional satirical novel into something more experimental. The ending especially, which is far from conclusive but ultimately satisfying, might be a hard sell for some. Still, if you are willing to leave a few conventions behind, and have no problem laughing out loud while reading, this novel is for you.

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane
nightguestRuth Field lives in an idyllic Australian seaside home just steps from the beach. She is recently widowed, her husband having died suddenly from a heart attack, but is slowly getting used to living alone. She stays in contact with her two adult sons and also has memories of her early life growing up in Fiji to keep her company. There is one problem though; when she wakes in the evening, she hears what she thinks is a tiger prowling around her house, knocking over furniture and trying to get into her bedroom.  One day a woman named Frida, stating that she is a caregiver sent by the government, shows up and begins to help Ruth out in small ways for an hour or two a day. Ruth is taken aback at first, since she is not used to having a stranger in the house, but slowly comes to rely on Frida for most things. As the relationship develops, however, it soon becomes clear that Frida is not what she claims to be.

The plot of this novel may seem somewhat conventional, but the presentation is anything but. Most of the book is from Ruth’s perspective as she struggles to figure out what is real and whether Frida is a force for good or ill. Slowly her ideas of the past and the present begin to blend as she tries to make sense of events that could be either real or imagined. The author’s use of language is the key here, with it beautifully reflecting the strange state of consciousness that can come as the mind slowly slips away. The effect is quite haunting and produces a gothic ambiance that has no need for paranormal activity to produce a sense of dread and foreboding. What‘s in the mind is more than enough.

So why not try a debut novel or two? There’s nothing wrong with being unconventional from time to time.

The (Radio) Play’s the Thing

It will probably come as no surprise to learn that most of us in the library world like things to be in their proper place. This isn’t some kind of obsessive/compulsive disorder, usually anyway, but all in the name of access. Whole systems, both digital and physical, are created and designed to put materials into an organizational scheme and, most importantly, make all our great collections easy to find. Despite our best efforts, however, there are always a few types of materials that just don’t seem to fit anywhere easily, becoming the stuff of librarians’ nightmares.

One such area is Radio Dramas, sometimes called Radio Plays or Audio Theater. These collaborative recordings are hybrids that could fit in many different places in the library. Rather than go into the super scintillating reasons why, the important thing to note is that the radio dramas at the Everett Public Library are in the Audio Books section. Not super intuitive I know, but hey, at least they are in the same collection area. To encourage you to seek out these classification misfits, here is a sampling of some of the top notch titles the library has to offer.

Star Wars: The Original Radio Drama
starwarradioA long time ago, 1981 to be exact, on a radio station called NPR, a serialization of the original Star Wars film was performed. This rerelease is a full cast adaptation, including Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels from the film, complete with sound effects and theme music. The intriguing fact for the true Star Wars aficionado is that this program expands the original storyline by adding significant amounts of backstory. Curious about how Princess Leia actually acquired those Death Star schematics? This production will let you hear how it was done.

Smiley’s People: a BBC Full-Cast Radio Dramasmileyspeople
The sequel to Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has spy chief George Smiley coming out of retirement to engage in some more deadly Cold War espionage. This could be the final round, however, as he must face his Soviet nemesis, code named Karla. All the hallmarks of BBC radio drama at its best can be heard, including great sound effects, veteran voice actors, and a plethora of regional accents.

It’s Superman
itssupermanThis dramatization of Tom De Haven’s novel traces the evolution of the young Clark Kent including his journey from 1930s Kansas to New York City and his acquisition of super powers. As with most modern takes on the superhero genre, this reimagined Superman has skeletons in his closet and plenty of issues to deal with as he battles Lex Luthor and woos Lois Lane. This is a GraphicAudio production, an organization known for its radio drama presentations and should not disappoint.

Tales of the City
talesofthecityArmistead Maupin’s tale of a young woman’s experiences in 1970s San Francisco gets the radio drama treatment in this set of CDs.  This is the first novel featuring the quirky and downright odd tenants of 28 Barbary Lane and these characters are a bonanza for the talented voice actors of this production.  If you want to continue your listening experience, definitely check out the sequel, More Tales of the City, as well.

The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas Volume 1
twilightzoneThis is a collection of classic Twilight Zone television episodes recently readapted for a listening audience. Many of the classic shows are here, including The Night of the Meek and Long Live Walter Jameson. In addition, the stories are narrated by a cavalcade of stars of varying wattage including Mariette Hartley, Lou Diamond Phillips, Jane Seymour, Blair Underwood and Ed Begley, Jr.  Sadly, they couldn’t get William Shatner to narrate Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. Maybe in the next volume.

The Thirty Nine Stepsthirtyninesteps
This tale of wartime espionage and intrigue starts with a classic premise; an innocent man discovers a dead body in his apartment and is promptly framed for murder. As he tries to clear his name, he uncovers a sinister world of plots, conspiracies and undercover agents. This is a full cast BBC production with lots of great talent including Tom Baker (of Dr. Who fame) and David Robb.

I’ve just highlighted a few of the many quality radio dramas we have in this collection. If you are interested in even more, the easiest way to find them in the catalog is to search under the subject headings Radio Plays and Radio Adaptations. While they can take a little digging to find, you will be well rewarded for your efforts.

The Best Laid Plans

As you may recall, gentle reader, in June I devised a list of interesting non-fiction titles to guide my summer reading.  Well the good news is that I have been reading non-fiction. The bad news is that none of the titles I’ve chosen so far have been selected from that list. I had hoped to whittle away at my reading list, but sadly I’ve just added to it. Still, in the grand scheme of things, there are worse problems to have than a long list of interesting books to read.  Speaking of the grand scheme of things, the titles I have been reading this summer have had a philosophical bent for some reason. Perhaps sunshine makes a person question their place in the universe. Or it could be sunstroke. In any case, here are few more titles you might want to consider for your summer non-fiction reading.

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm
dyingeverydayWhile this work is definitely chock full of intriguing Roman Imperial history, the book’s central aim is trying to answer a seemingly intractable question: Just what kind of person was Seneca? On the one hand, thanks to many of his surviving philosophical works, we know that he was a dyed in the wool Stoic preaching the rigorous virtues of poverty, morality and the equality of all before fate. On the other we have his career as a shrewd politician and tutor to the young Emperor Nero; Seneca amassed a huge amount of wealth while delicately maneuvering through the deadly and incredibly amoral minefield of the imperial court. The author is a master at examining a tenant of stoicism that Seneca espoused and then contrasting it with the rather seedy political world he found himself in. Romm makes a convincing argument concerning Seneca’s moral character, but ultimately leaves it up to the reader to decide.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
theswerveThis one is a librarian’s, or book lover’s, dream. In the winter of 1417 the Italian humanist and former Papal secretary Poggio Braccilini was searching for forgotten manuscripts, a popular pastime in that era, in the monasteries of Southern Germany.  What he discovered was a fragile copy of an ancient poem titled On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura). This text, written by Lucretius and promoting the ideas of the philosopher Epicurus, was praised for the beauty of its language, but the ideas it conveyed were definitely not kosher for the time. A few examples: early atomic theory (discovered centuries before the scientific method was invented), the idea of an indifferent universe, and, worst of all, the concept that seeking pleasure was actually a good thing. Greenblatt’s book is not only an examination of the history of these ideas and their influence on our culture, but also the fascinating story of Poggio Braccilini and his time.

The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman
accidentaluniverseAll the essays in this short work are concerned with the impact of recent scientific discoveries on our view of the universe and our place in it. The author is both a theoretical physicist and a novelist which I found to be a great help when it came to his descriptions of some of the more complicated scientific concepts such as dark matter and the multiverse which he deftly puts in layman’s terms.  The essays are not simply explanations of scientific concepts. Instead, Lightman tries to integrate the scientific ideas with concepts from history, literature, and his own personal experiences.  This creates a balanced approach that is greatly appreciated when it comes to hot button topics like the often uneasy relationship between belief and the scientific method. This book is not a series of rants from a particular perspective, but rather a balanced and humane attempt to genuinely explore the ideas scientific discoveries are bringing to the fore.

A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning by Robert Zaretsky
alifeworthlivingWhile you may associate Albert Camus with past memories of disgruntled youths wearing all black and mumbling the first line from The Stranger (Mother died today. Or was it yesterday; I can’t be sure.) this blend of biography and criticism would argue that there is much more to the man and his ideas for living.  Zaretsky structures the biographical details around a series of concepts that Camus grappled with and that make up the chapter headings: Absurdity, Silence, Measure, Fidelity, Revolt.  What emerges is a set of ideas for understanding the world that are constantly open to exploration and interpretation, far from the static label (existentialism) often ascribed to them. While struggle is definitely a component, Camus finds that there is actually cause for hope and, gasp, happiness in this life:

It was the middle of winter, I finally realized that, within me, summer was inextinguishable.

So, a few suggestions for a little light non-fiction reading this summer. Perhaps I need to get out of the sun.

Watching the (Flawed) Detectives

Some viewers like their television detectives to be close to infallible: Perhaps a dashing Sherlock Holmes, in all his variants, or a fastidious Hercule Poiroit who can stride into a room and suss out the killer by using only a few cigarette butts and a train timetable. I’ll admit that there is a definite fascination in watching a well-oiled intellect spring into action and I’ve enjoyed series with a super sleuth at the center, but in the end I find these characters a bit off-putting. Maybe I’m intimidated by their ability to figure things out so much better than me (admittedly not a major accomplishment). Ultimately, though, I think it is their ‘small details are everything’ attitude to fictional crime detection that tends to irk me. This approach suggests a world that is well-ordered and rational. Evidence points to the contrary I’m afraid.

Instead, I tend to prefer a television detective who views the world with a more jaundiced eye. In the world they inhabit, solutions are hard to find and justice can be elusive. Also a world-weary attitude and a tortured past are a plus. Luckily, there are plenty of shows with characters that share these attributes. Here are a few television series I’ve come across that just might be of interest if you also have a weakness for flawed detectives.

Broadchurch
broadchurchDetective Inspector Alec Hardy (played by David Tennant) has plenty of issues. Reassigned to the small town of Broadchurch, after a high-profile botched investigation for which he was blamed, he not only takes the job promised to Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller (played by Olivia Colman) but is also dealing with an illness that he has to keep hidden in order to maintain his position. Things go from bad to worse when a boy’s corpse is found on the beach and he has to find the killer in this tight-knit, and closed mouthed, community. This entire series revolves around the one investigation, which allows for a lot of complex character development of not just the inspector but all of those involved.

Vera
veraSet in the gorgeous, yet a tad desolate, North East of England this series centers around DCI Vera Stanhope (played by Brenda Blethyn). While Vera is in comfortable middle age, you would be making a grave mistake to consider her the motherly type. With a fondness for living alone, alcohol, and self-destructive behavior, she could most kindly be called a curmudgeon. She is a master at using others’ false perceptions of her age and status when it comes to interrogations however. Another nice twist in this series is having her second in command be a youthful family man, Joe Ashworth (played by David Leon), who tries to offer up some opposing viewpoints. Good luck with that.

Wallander
wallanderThere are several television adaptations that feature this famous Swedish detective, but in the BBC production Kenneth Branagh plays the role in a subdued and humane way. Each episode would not be out of place in an Ingmar Bergman film, with the silences and landscape shots adding to the sense of existential ennui. While Wallander does try to rise above it all, most of the time it feels like an exercise in seeing how much emotional damage a character can take and still remain standing. If you are up for it, it is great stuff. The relationship he has with his father, played by David Warner, a painter who is slowly succumbing to dementia is particularly strong.

Justified
JustifiedDue to some rather unorthodox ideas concerning the proper use of lethal force, U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens (played by Timothy Olyphant) finds himself transferred from Miami to rural Eastern Kentucky where he was raised. While Raylan at first resembles a classic American lawman, his character and those around him become more complex with the show evolving into a character study of the people in hardscrabble Harlan County, with story arcs lasting a season or more. Raylan himself has plenty of skeletons in his closet including his relationships with his estranged father, his  former ‘friend’ Boyd Crowder, and his ex-wife among many others. The writing is a standout as well with rapid fire banter and a fun sense of false civility.

So if you don’t mind your fictional crimes investigated by detectives that are a bit dysfunctional, definitely check out a series or two. Just don’t expect the perpetrator to be Professor Plum in the library with the candlestick.

The Facts of Summer

Just in case you haven’t noticed, the summer reading season is upon us. In addition to great programs at EPL encouraging people to read this summer, there are many summer reading lists from which to choose. Any list, however, has to grapple with an interesting conundrum: what exactly is a summer read? Some recommend escapist ‘light’ fiction while others promote the most popular titles that they claim everyone will be reading. While the idea that the season should dictate the type of book you read does seem a bit dubious, I have found that I tend to reach for non-fiction titles when the sun comes out.  Maybe it is just the extra hours of daylight that encourages me to delve into these often longer titles. In any case, here are two excellent non-fiction titles I’ve just read and a list of interesting ones that are on my ‘to read’ list.

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
sixthextinctionThe core topic of this book, the scientific evidence that the rise of the human species has coincided with a huge loss of flora and fauna on par with other mass extinctions, is admittedly a bit disturbing. The amazing thing is that Kolbert presents the topic in a fascinating and, dare I say, entertaining way. She goes out into the field with biologists, geologists and other scientists to examine the demise of present and past species and the resulting evolutionary fallout. Each chapter is a separate story complete with an intriguing cast of characters, both animal and human, adding another piece to the puzzle. This is scientific writing at its best. It also helps to give our rather ego-centric species a rare gift: perspective.

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink
fivedaysatmemorialThis is the harrowing tale of life and death at New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. As the floodwaters continued to rise, the doctors, nurses and medical staff had to make desperate decisions concerning which of their patients would be evacuated and the even more troubling quandary of what to do with those left behind. Fink uses all her journalistic talents to present the events of those five days after the hurricane as well as the extensive legal battles and moral judgments that came afterwards. The central question of whether there is a separate standard of right and wrong during ‘extreme emergencies’ is wisely left for the reader to decide.

Next is a sampling from my long list of non-fiction titles that I have been meaning to read. While I can’t vouch for them yet, they seem intriguing and just might be worth your summer reading time as well.

carsickdevilscormorantanswertothriddlecubed

Carsick by John Waters
The concept alone, the infamous director hitchhiking across America and recording his encounters, is impossible to resist. The audiobook, which the author will narrate, should be a standout.

The Devil’s Cormorant: A Natural History by Richard King
I’ve always thought of cormorants as simply cool birds. Apparently there is a long history of mistrust and demonization when it comes to human/cormorant relations. Time to find out more.

The Answer to the Riddle is Me by David MacLean
A memoir of amnesia, induced by malaria medications no less, and the author’s attempt to rediscover not only his memories, but who he is. Sounds like a mind bender, but in a good way.

Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval
Most of us spend a large amount of time in ‘designed workspaces’. How did that happen? Hopefully this book will have a few answers.

danceofthereptileslostartoffindingourwayhistoryofbourbonyesitshotinhere

Dance of the Reptiles by Carl Hiaasen
A new selection of the author’s articles from the Miami Herald. While Hiaasen’s fiction can sometimes be hit or miss, his exposés concerning the beauty and corruption of Florida have always been entertaining.

Lost Art of Finding Our Way by John Huth
A curious look at the ways we found our bearings before the recent advent of MapQuest and Google Earth. Maybe this will finally decide the dreaded car argument of whether to consult the smart phone or the map.

Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit by Dane Huckelbridge
A colorful history of bourbon sounds like just the ticket for warm summer nights. As a plus maybe I’ll finally be able to identify all those bottles they are pouring from in Justified.

Yes It’s Hot in Here by A.J. Mass
A cultural history of the team mascot by a former ‘Mr. Met’ that is just too weird a topic to pass up. It has got to be a surreal experience being inside the suit.

Clearly, you have many choices for summer non-fiction titles. So many in fact, that you just might want to extend your ‘summer reading’ well into fall and winter.

Your Perfect Match

For some, short story collections can be a hard sell. Some readers want a specific beginning, middle, and end (preferably with a twist) to their works of fiction. Others want the sense of accomplishment that comes from getting to page 300 and still having a ways to the end. A short story is, well, short and really can’t deliver in either of these areas. Don’t give up on the form though. As a matchmaker might say, maybe you just haven’t met the right kind of short story. Perhaps it is a matter of shared interests. In order to help you find the right collection, here are four new works coupled with personality traits. It’s time to take the plunge.

If you like: different perspectives, economic downturns, Sherwood Anderson, drinking Guinness

spinningheartThe Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan is for you. While dubbed a novel, this work is actually a collection of interconnected short stories that reflect the thoughts and experiences of several members of a small Irish village. Each story is from a different villager’s perspective, but they all reflect the recent impact of the financial crisis that began in 2008 and the social conditions it brought about. This is hardly a political work though and is much more concerned with individuals and how they survive. Since the reader is privy to the characters innermost thoughts, each external event has multiple meanings depending on perspective. If you are a fan of the book Winesburg, Ohio you will really like this one.

If you like: complicated women, the desire to escape, family (kind of), oppressive Florida sunshine

isleofyouthThe Isle of Youth: Stories by Laura Van den Berg could be the one. Though the settings can be exotic (Patagonia, Antarctica, Paris, several in the hazy heat of Florida) the characters in these stories are all dealing with a sense of detachment from the ‘norm’. A failing relationship, be it with family, a partner, or societal expectations, serves as the catalyst for an attempt at self-examination. The author also adds a great neo-noir feel, especially in the stories set in Florida, which adds to the atmosphere. The story titled Opa-locka, with a sister detective team working for a former Opera singer who suspects her husband of infidelity, is a real stand out and was recently chosen as one of the O. Henry Prize short story winners.

If you like: violent modern fables, an extremely dark sense of humor, unreliable narrators, explosions

corpseexhibitionThe Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq by Hasan Balasim might just be the ticket. The grim, brutal, and often darkly funny stories in this collection are all products of wartime Iraq. Don’t expect to find a political or historical angle, however. Instead you get a series of fantastical and surreal tales ranging from a middle manager at a terrorist guild using artistic merit as the bar for success (The Corpse Exhibition) to a radio game show with traumatized contestants competing to tell the most horrific tale (The Song of the Goats). What comes through in all of these stories is the intense desire to tell a tale. It might be true, it might not, but the ability to tell it to another is of the utmost importance.

If you like: brevity, a straightforward style, disturbing undertones, Havarti cheese

karatechopKarate Chop: Stories by Dorthe Nors is your kind of book. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly mundane tone and setting. Underneath the surface of these very brief stories, lies some really intriguing yet disturbing stuff. The author can take an everyday activity (a walk in the park, searching the Internet) and expose the complex thoughts and emotions involved simply by examining the event closely. The author’s combination of economical prose and the short length of the stories themselves leads to a streamlined and ultimately pleasing effect. This is the first book translated into English by this Danish author and hopefully not the last.

Hopefully you have found a collection or two that has piqued your interest. No need for a long-term commitment. These are short stories after all.

 

Welcome to the Jungle

There is no doubt about it. Spring is here. So, is the glass half empty or half full? If full, you might see this time as a period of wonderful regeneration with the earth awakening from its slumber and bursting into life. If empty, you might cast your gaze at all that bursting life and see a tide of noxious weeds attempting to drown all that is desirable. Whichever position you take, a certain fact remains: weeds exist and must be dealt with. Luckily, the library has a wide variety of materials to help you in your dealings with these undesirables.

gardeningPerhaps it isn’t surprising, but books whose sole topic is the art of weeding are few and far between. Don’t despair, however. Contained within the many books we have on gardening, are myriad chapters on weeding. Interestingly, they tend to shy away from the term ‘weeding’ and instead go for the more broad ‘garden maintenance.’ A good example is Gardening: The Complete Guide by Miranda Smith where you will find weeding information in the chapter titled ‘Maintaining Your Garden.’ There is a lot of good, practical information in this chapter and, as a library worker, I especially appreciate the author’s knowledge is power approach to weeding:

You’ve no doubt heard the cliché about weeds being nothing more than plants ‘out of place.’ But no matter what your relationship to the weeds in your garden, you’ll be able to control and, believe it or not, use them better if you understand them.

weedingwithoutchemicalsIn addition to the more general gardening books, we have an excellent weed-specific title that should be of service. Weeding Without Chemicals by Bob Flowerdew is a handy little tome that points out the many ways you can keep weeds at bay without resorting to harsh chemicals. Don’t think this is a weak-willed approach to weeding however. Some of the techniques, my favorite being open flame, are pretty hardcore. The author is also an advocate of what he terms ‘weed exclusion’ but which I’ve always thought of as ‘find a dog who’ll eat a dog.’ Heather, which is so dense that it essentially smothers anything underneath it, is an ideal candidate. In fact, my yard could easily become all heather one day.

waroftheworldsLet’s face it, once you are suited up and ready to weed, the act itself isn’t the most exciting of activities. Sure there is a certain primal satisfaction when you yank out the final tendril, you hope, of horsetail, but the thrill tends to fade with time. I find distraction is necessary and turn to audiobooks to help me. We have a large selection of audiobooks in both CD and downloadable format from which to choose. Recently, I’ve found that radio programs provide the perfect balance between distraction and the limited concentration necessary to yank out the weeds. The library has great collections of radio programs to try out, including classics like Dragnet and the Orson Welles broadcast of War of the Worlds, as well as programs produced by the BBC and NPR.

feastofweedsFinally your weeding shift is over and you have a large pile of the creatures at your feet. You could compost them, but a new trend is emerging that offers a surprising alternative: dining on their interloping bodies. If you choose this option, The Front Yard Forager: Identifying, Collecting and Cooking the 30 Most Common Urban Weeds by Melany Vorass Herrera will show you how. In addition to having many recipes this book is a concise and detailed field guide that helps you select your victims appropriately. If you need some more ideas, definitely check out A Feast of Weeds by Lugi Ballerini which gives a definite Italian and literary slant to the concept with recipes for Nettle Risotto and Spaghetti with Prickly Pear and Yogurt.

In the grand scheme of things, it is probably true that the weeds, and nature herself, will win out in the end. Armed with information from the library, however, we can go down swinging.