Conversion by Katherine Howe

conversionWhen I was in high school there was this kid with Tourette syndrome and a glass eye. None of us knew what Tourette syndrome was. We just knew he blurted out things that came as half swears: “Fu, fu, fu!”  Or “Shi, shi!! shi!” He had a few facial tics, his body would twitch and he was exhausting to watch because he was constantly moving. We thought he was an annoying kid. We also thought he was lying when he said he had a glass eye. You couldn’t tell like with Colombo or Sandy Duncan when you look at them and go ‘Yup! That one’s the glass eye. It goes off a little to the left.’

But one day in theatre class he was on stage and his glass eye fell out. I was sitting in the theatre seats with some other students and was looking down at my lap reading a book (because theatre class was boring and the girls wore all black and the meat head footballers thought it was an easy A which it was) when I heard everyone gasp. I looked at the stage to find the kid bending down scurrying around for his eye. There was some nervous laughter and he may have wiped the eye on his corduroy pants but I was just pissed I missed the actual eye falling out of his actual head.

In Katherine Howe’s Conversion, Colleen Rowley attends St. Joan’s Academy, a school known for producing graduates that go on to Ivy League universities. Colleen is at the top of her class and is a runner-up for valedictorian. The aim to be top student is unbelievably stressful. Some of the girls begin to have breakdowns which the parents and teachers brush off as hormones. But when Clara Rutherford topples over in class and begins to have a seizure, the entire world of St. Joan’s Academy grinds to a halt.

Girl after girl begins to have tics and Exorcist-like contortions that lands a few of them in the hospital. Parents begin to worry. Is there something in the environment that’s causing the girls to collapse one by one? Fearing that she might be the next girl to be hit by the mysterious illness, Colleen begins to read about a girl in the 1700s who, along with other girls, began to have strange fits that were blamed on demons and the cranky old ladies in town. That town was called Salem.

A therapist explains to Colleen that the girls are suffering from conversion disorder which produces neurological symptoms (tics, fits, blindness, sometime even paralysis) but has no real cause. It was once known as hysteria or as I like to call it: This corset is suffocating me and I haven’t eaten in 3 years because these are  Victorian times and I have to be the paragon of femininity and that means I have to faint in a pretty and lady-like way and then spend a week every month being reminded that I’m a woman and should cinch my corset a little tighter.

The media descends on Colleen’s town, camping in front of the school and hollering embarrassing questions at the girls. At a time when Colleen and her classmates should be excited (and nervous as hell) about their last year of high school and the new possibilities of university, they’re terrified, hiding away, becoming sicker and more paranoid as the days go on.

Katherine Howe has written a kick-ass book full of insight into the minds of driven girls and who they think they are when every last bit of them is stripped away. As I read this book I had flashbacks of my time in high school. Well, mostly about skipping classes so I could go home to read. I was an almost straight A student but that was more out a fear of being ordinary than any real ambition to be a stellar student. I still have those high school dreams, though. I’ll be trying to get my math book out of my locker, can’t remember the combination and realize I haven’t done any of the math assignments for 3 months. Just as I’m about to topple into despair that I won’t graduate, I’ll remember I’m 37 years old and done with high school. All these years later and high school still slips in and gets a hold of me. Ugh. Shake it off, Jennifer.

Being 16 is hard enough. Add in the pressure to get into a top university and live up to the expectations of everyone else and no wonder the human body goes into meltdown.

Still, I wish I could have seen that kid’s glass eye pop out of his head.

Whoops! BANNED Book Week

Well.

I humbly compose this retraction. As many of you probably realize, this is not Band Book Week but rather Banned Book Week. Obviously an ostrich of an entirely different color. Sure, band books are important, and what with the sex and drugs some of them are probably banned band books, but what we really celebrate this week is freedom from censorship.

Libraries and schools are targets for those who feel that certain types of materials should not be accessible in a public venue. They challenge these books, approaching those in authority with a request to have the books removed from circulation. Sometimes, sadly, the books are removed (banned), but more often they remain available.

Many recognized masterworks are frequently challenged, including 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, and The Grapes of Wrath.

Books 1-4Newer challenged books include Fifty Shades of Grey and The Lovely Bones.

Books 4.1-4.2

Children’s and young adult materials are frequently challenged, including Captain Underpants, The Hunger Games series, the Harry Potter series, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Books 5-8

Graphic novels are not exempt from attempted censorship. Bone by Jeff Smith was number 10 on the 2013 most often challenged list. Other critically acclaimed graphic novels such as Blankets by Craig Thompson and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel have also been protested as containing “obscene images.”

Books 9-11All of these examples are wonderful books in the eyes of some readers, but books that should be hidden from the light of day by others.

Why, you might wonder, would someone think a book should be banned? Reasons ranging from sexual overtones to anti-family content, from promotion of smoking and drinking to coarse language, from sexism to nudity are all used to justify the challenges to these books. There will always be materials that someone objects to, but fortunately we have a system that allows people to object, their objections to be reviewed, and censorship to generally not be tolerated.

Let me regale you with a couple of stories from my life that help illuminate my attitude.

My high school librarian was not a very friendly person. Most students did not like him. It came to light that he took it upon himself to hide books in a back room if he thought that they were not suitable for students. These books did not show up in the card catalog and he did not go through any channels to have the books banned. It was purely one individual’s decision. And of course these decisions impacted hundreds of people each year. This is not a shocking story that ends with our hero being wrongly tortured and executed, but it did shape my attitudes towards censorship.

The second story is that of living in a country which practices censorship. For two years I lived in Malaysia and this provided an interesting introduction to censorship. Certain books and magazines were not allowed in bookstores (I never interacted with the library system if there is one). Movies were edited to remove language and objectionable scenes, as were television shows. Of course this censorship was carried out for religious reasons, and I respect this, but it did make me appreciate the freedoms we have here. And on a side note, much like Prohibition times in the USA, the censored materials were available if you knew where to look, but getting caught was not a desirable outcome.

Getting back to the books that were listed above, I’ve read about half of them and I’m a better person for it. I sometimes read books that disturb me but often gain something from them. I enjoy themes that might disturb others and I’m glad that books with those themes can be found in my public library. And most of all, I’m ecstatic that I don’t have to secretly obtain censored books and live in fear of being discovered with them.

So celebrate! Check out a banned book and see what the fuss is all about. Come to the main library to see our banned book display. Find a book that you think should be banned and try to approach it with an open mind, perhaps searching for redeeming qualities. In all activities, rejoice that you have the freedom to object, to read and most of all, to benefit from the collections that we maintain in the library.

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.

Invasion of the Killer B-movie Robot Monster from Mars

It CameB-movies meet P.G. Wodehouse in the 2014 graphic novel It Came!, ‘directed’ by Dan Boultwood. Boultwood previously illustrated a series of graphic novels about The Baker Street Irregulars which were written by Tony Lee, who has also written for IDW’s Doctor Who Comics.

Before the main ‘feature’ there are a number of 1950’s style advertisements. For example, the top of one page sports an illustration of an attractive, stylish woman declaring, “I like my men like I like my bacon: Smokey.” At the bottom of the page: “Smoke & Choke’um Cigarettes: For that discerning odour.”

Just before the ‘feature attraction’ begins there is a ‘trailer’ for another ‘feature’ (and possible future comic, according to interviews with the author): The Lost Valley of the LostLost Valley features the two stars of It Came!, Dick Claymore and Fanny Flaunders, as well as Cecil Herringbone and Sir Rutherford P. Basingstoke as Caveman. The trailer features views of canyons with our heroine, played by the lovely Fanny Flaunders, in perilous situations: being attacked by a snake, a plant and a spanner. The trailer’s climax sees the heroes being confronted by a rather cuddly dinosaur.

On to our ‘feature’, It Came!, presented in Eyeball-O-Rama-Vision! A colorful poster-style page depicting a giant robot clutching a beautiful woman proclaims, “Something is coming round for afternoon tea…and it isn’t the vicar!” Then our story begins. In 1950’s England an old farmer drives his tractor under the stars. Suddenly, a robot monster attacks!

Two days pass and Dr. Boy Brett, dashing pipe-smoking British scientist, and his lovely assistant Doris Night are motoring down a country road in what appears to be a Morris Minor. Brett is very English, with rather Wodehousian speech patterns. For example, complimenting Doris, Brett says, “You know, Doris? For a girl, you’re a good egg!”

Doris and Dr. Brett stop at a pub in a quaint country village. The village is deserted. Our heroes are chased by an alien robot. They escape to the next quaint village, which is inhabited by people who appear to be living in the 1940’s. Dr. Brett makes a very British phone call to Colonel Willie Warwick Wilberton of the British army, who sends out some troops in exchange for two pints and a pork pie.

And that’s just the first quarter of the book!

Earth vs Flying Boultwood is inspired by American B-movies of the 1950’s, the type one might see on Mystery Science Theater 3000, such as Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers and Attack of the Crab Monsters. However, It Came! is more of an homage than a send-up. Boultwood has lots of fun with the genre (for example, when the flying saucer is revealed there is a string attached!), but the fun is never cruel.

It Came! has everything: beautiful women, flying saucers, soldiers, politicians with really big pipes, explosions, tea and crumpets, and, of course, science! It’s enjoyable, funny reading and I highly recommend it.

Spot-Lit for September 2014

Spot-Lit

Click the titles below and then the Full Display button to read summaries or reviews or to place titles on hold.

General Fiction / Literary Fiction  

Fiction

The Bone Clocks  by David Mitchell
Paying Guests  by Sarah Waters
The Betrayers  by David Bezmozgis
Florence Gordon  by Brian Morton
The Dog  by Joseph O’Neill

First Novels / Fiction

Debut

How to Build a Girl  by Caitlin Moran
Fives and Twenty-Fives  by Michael Pitre
Gutenberg’s Apprentice  by Alix Christie
Rooms  by Lauren Oliver
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing  by Eimear McBride

Many more promising debuts are coming out this month – take a look.

Crime Fiction /Suspense

Crime

The Secret Place  by Tana French
Last of the Independents  by Sam Wiebe
Perfidia  by James Ellroy
The Monogram Murders  by Sophie Hannah
Gangsterland  by Tod Goldberg

SF / Fantasy

SF

The Hawley Book of the Dead  by Chrysler Szarlan
The Mirror Empire  by Kameron Hurley
The Broken Eye  by Brent Weeks
The Falcon Throne  by Karen Miller
Maplecroft  by Cheri Priest

Romance / Erotica

Romance

Stay with Me  by J. Lynn
Claudine  by Barbara Palmer
Screwdrivered  by Alice Clayton
Linger  by Lauren Jameson
Virtue Falls  by Christina Dodd

To see all on-order fiction, click here.

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

Once in a while (or more often than I care to admit) I’ll zone out and start thinking about stuff that does me no good. Here is an example from when I was staring into space for five minutes in the produce section at Safeway:

They’re going to peel open my skull, take a peek around and be devastated by what they find. Or don’t find. I don’t know if they can tell this from an autopsy, but the way I live doesn’t adhere to anyone’s expectations or standards. In fact, I’ve been a disappointment to a lot of people. When I die, it will be unremarkable but not in a sad way because hey, I’ll be dead. Anyway, the only information they’ll get out of my autopsy will be that I ate 3 pints of Ben and Jerry’s Toffee Coffee Crunch, was still using Clearasil at the age of 80 and I may or may not have 76 cats back in the apartment I died in.

It’s the weird stuff you get obsessed about while picking out carrots or trying to figure out the difference between red cabbage and plain lettuce.

closeyoureyesIn Chris Bohjalian’s Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands Emily Shepard is a teenager who loves the poetry of Emily Dickinson and seems like your run of the mill 17-year-old. There’s mention of mental illness and wildness but I could never tell if that was just Emily being a teenager or if she was in need of hefty medications and therapy three times a week. She’s a door-slamming and yelling teenager, hates her drunk parents most of the time and likes to go out and party. Both of her parents work at a nuclear plant in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. They have loud drunken fights and quiet hung over mornings.

One morning with every boring thing in its proper place, Emily goes to school, her parents go to work, and things go to hell. At Emily’s school there’s an announcement. All of the students are filed onto buses they’ve never seen. As the buses leave the town and the army comes in, rumors and pieces of the story start to come together. One of the reactors had a meltdown, Chernobyl style. There’s whispering that Emily’s father was working while loaded and caused the tragedy.

Emily tries to think back to the morning before leaving for school. Did her dad seem drunk or hung over? Was it his fault? Everybody thinks so. Since he’s dead they all look to her. She’s his daughter. It’s her fault. Her hometown becomes a ghost town with the national guard surrounding it. The area won’t be inhabitable for hundreds of years. Emily realizes both her parents are dead from the nuclear meltdown and she’s on a bus to God knows where. She decides to slip away.

It is the beginning of her new life.

She becomes a homeless teen with a made up name. She falls in with a bunch of other kids who crash at a filthy crack house. She services truckers for money and drugs. She tries not to think of her parents or the town she grew up in. As strange as it sounds, she worries most about her dog Maggie who may have been locked in the house during the meltdown. She obsesses on this. She decides that while yes, her life sucks big time, she’s still alive. It’s the dead of a New England winter and at least she gets a warm place to stay.

But this isn’t what she wants. She disappears and builds an igloo out of frozen leaves and garbage bags. She meets Cameron, an eight year old boy with a black eye. He’d been through a series of foster homes and was used as a punching bag. She feels a terrifying and unexpected tenderness for the kid and takes care of him; making sure she gets healthy food for him to eat and getting him to read the books she steals. But one day Cameron gets a cold he doesn’t seem to get over. It’s a bitter winter and they’ve been sharing a cold back and forth but this is something different. Cameron’s fever won’t leave and he can’t breathe. Emily takes him to the ER and then splits because she feels guilty that she didn’t take him in sooner and that she didn’t take good enough care of him.

She decides there’s only one place to go: back to the uninhabited town she left almost a year ago. She has no doubts that the radioactivity will eventually kill her. She just wants to go home. Sleep in her own bed, look at her journals and books. She wants to find the body of her dog Maggie and give her a proper burial.

A friend of mine recommended this book as we were driving around town and listing the past couple of books we had just read. I stored it away in my brain because I’ve read some of Chris Bohjalian’s other work and really liked them. Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is a book to read when you’re in a particular mood where all you can think about is where you’ll end up in life. A mood where all the people you interact with become satellites orbiting your world. It’s a good book to read when you believe you’re the most selfish person in the world and you have no redeeming qualities..

In the end, you can go home. You might die from cancer or radiation sickness. You might have to eat refried beans from cans two years out of date. You might not even realize you’re lonely because you’re sleeping in your own bed.

But you will still be you and you will still find your way home.

Heartwood 4:5 – Hotel Andromeda by Gabriel Josipovici

Hotel Andromeda in the Everett Public Library catalogIn Hotel Andromeda, Gabriel Josipovici has written a beautiful and thoughtful tribute to eccentric 20th-century American artist Joseph Cornell, while also telling an engaging story of his own. This is one of those rare books in which, at least from my perspective, not a single false note is struck and every word belongs.

Helena is an independent scholar who lives in London and writes books about artists such as Monet and Bonnard. She is currently working on one about Cornell, and it is giving her some difficulty. In rotating fashion, the short chapters focus on Helena’s notes for her book-in-progress, her visits with fellow tenants Ruth (on the top floor) and Tom (in the basement), and her interactions with the surprise visitor, Ed, a photojournalist who has been driven out of Chechnya where Helena’s uncommunicative sister Alice lives and works at an orphanage. Helena learns that Ed has been sent by her sister who told him Helena would put him up temporarily as he looks for work. She is stunned by the appearance of this inconvenient messenger from her long-silent sister but she reluctantly agrees to let him stay.

Not a lot happens in the book – just perfectly executed conversations about art and life and contemporary Chechen/Russian politics, along with conflicted yearnings for connection, communication and solitude. The way Cornell’s life and art are woven through the story is fascinating and skillfully done, and these sections suffuse the book with an aura of dream, reminiscence, imagination, and childhood.

Heartwood normally focuses on older books, but I enjoyed Hotel Andromeda so much, with its short chapters and narrow columns of dialogue, that I wanted to give it some immediate attention. Josipovici’s book also fits here in a couple other ways: in several places it refers to Heartwood-featured author Camille Flammarion, and, as chance would have it, a photo of the Cornell box Hotel Eden appears on the cover of Felisberto Hernández’s Lands of Memory which was featured in Heartwood earlier this year.

The library owns several attractive books about Cornell, or you can read about him and sample his work online here and here and here.

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