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.

In Memoriam: David White

We here at A Reading Life have lost one of our own. Our friend and colleague David White passed away unexpectedly September 20th. I’m having a difficult time coping with the fact that he is really, truly gone. In trying to process my grief I’m going back through and reading all his blog posts and picturing his voice reading the words.

In Memoriam - David White

Our memorial to David outside the Main Library Circulation Office, where he worked, along with some of his favorite books and music.

As you may have been able to tell from David’s posts here, he really loved the cult classics. He was big into what I call cheesy B movies, but also just into films in general. Over the years he picked up a lot of information and trivia about these and other topics, and was always ready, willing, and able to share them with the likeminded people he met.

I met David 10 years ago when I moved to Washington State from Illinois. Not surprisingly, one of the first things I did was get a library card. Guess who issued my library card? David. David was also the person who updated my account when I got married and changed my last name. His eyes would light up when I’d check out the few MST3K or Red Dwarf DVDs the library had back then. He recognized a fellow fan in me. In later years David came to understand how scatterbrained I can be. He started going out of his way to remind me when a new MST3K boxed set was going to be released so I would be sure not to miss it. David was one of the few library employees I interacted with until I started working here.

Calm and friendly, David wasn’t the type to throw on a fake smile and greet you in such a way that might make you uncomfortable. He always asked, “How can I help you?” like he really meant it. And he did. David would listen with a sympathetic ear if you had a tale of misfortune to relate. It didn’t matter if you were a library patron he’d just met or someone he’d worked with for 25 years. David had empathy in spades.

He was also so damn funny! David had a wicked sense of humor, and just hearing the distant sound of his laughter somewhere in the massive downtown library always put a smile on my face and made me know it was going to be a good day. In recent years we bonded over our shared love of RiffTrax, and would often bump into each other at the movie theater when there was a rare theatrical screening. We would recount our favorite scenes or lines and share a hearty laugh. There’s a show coming up next month and I will feel lost there without him.

The sadness is heavy like a rock inside of all of us, knowing we won’t see David again. There are few people in this world I have met who were truly kind souls and never rose to anger. David was one of those rare few who made each person he met just a little bit better than they were before.

David’s family has been amazing during this tragic time. They have kept both the library and library patrons informed of arrangements and have read every single story about David that has been posted to our Facebook page. We invite all of Everett and beyond to join us at a memorial for David:

Saturday, September 27
2:30-5pm
Main Library Auditorium
2702 Hoyt Ave.
Everett, WA 98201

Bring your stories to share with us and David’s family, and also bring cookies. David really loved a good cookie, and his family would like to pay tribute to that by having cookies at his memorial. Gifts may be made to the library in memory of David, per family request.

David

David loved Doctor Who, and had a variety of Doctor Who T-shirts he wore to work. Fans would strike up conversations with him about the show upon meeting him.

I’m still struggling through writing this, so I’ll leave you with some heartfelt words from our mutual friend and colleague Kathy:

David and I were members of the same secret handshake society: The Whovians. That’s the cult of Doctor Who, for those of you who don’t belong. We initially recognized one another by our T-shirts, which are indecipherable to outsiders and yet don’t stand out in the general population. We had different favorite actors and episodes, but it’s a friendly cult so it was all cool.

David, I’ll miss you trying to convince me “your” Doctor was better than mine.

Don’t blink.

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.

Band Books Week

Just last night I was thinking how indescribably important music is to me. I started playing organ at age 4, then guitar, viola, trumpet, French horn, mandolin. And along the way I began composing and studied this in college for some 12 years. I’ve played in various rock bands since the early 80’s, currently play in two. Music is the thing that keeps me going. So imagine my joy to hear about an entire week celebrating books about bands:  Band Book Week. Here are but a few of the titles available at Everett Public Library. Bands 1-3 Motley Crüe: The Dirt
Cockroaches, rats, piles of beer cans, Tommy Lee and the boys, alcohol, drugs, music and girls. Everything one could want in a heavy metal band biography.

Jonas Brothers: A Big Buddy Book
Embarrassed to admit that you’re still in love with Kevin, Joe, and Nick? Well my friend, you are not alone. This book is aimed at the younger crowd but will certainly satisfy those more mature Jonas fans as well. The pages are Burnin’ Up with interesting tidbits, so read it Tonight. No need to be Paranoid, just wait A Little Bit Longer and the Jonas juggernaut will come to you!

Fifty Sides of the Beach Boys
Is there anyone who doesn’t love the Beach Boys? No, there is not. This book looks at 50 songs by the seminal California surfer band. As well as the band’s history, its influence on current artists and culture is examined.

Bands 4-6 The Experience: Jimi Hendrix at Mason’s Yard
In Seattle we claim him as our own. No one else has ever played guitar like Jimi, probably no one ever will. Here we find photos from 1967 of Jimi and the lads at the height of their experience, perhaps the finest ever taken. This book is worth a look for any fan.

I and I: Bob Marley
Poems and paintings bring Bob Marley’s biography to life in this children’s book. Some of the Jamaican terminology might prove incomprehensible, but this beautiful book is well worth a look.

The Clash
At the front of the punk rock movement, and then careening around a hairpin turn to create London Calling, considered by many one of the greatest rock albums ever. While many punk groups demonstrated little intelligence or creativity, the Clash brought reggae into their first album, featured thoughtful lyrics, and crafted clever and enjoyable songs. This book is created by the band and includes materials previously unavailable for publication. If you don’t know The Clash, take advantage of this chance to meet them. Bands 7-9U2 by U2
Whenever I think of U2, I recall a Ben Stiller skit where he portrayed Bono saying, “I’m not actually a god, I just play one on TV.” And while the band has become a frequent target of parody, there is no denying their impressive success. I discovered the lads with their first album, Boys, and this remains my favorite, but the remainder of their catalogue reads like a world’s greatest hits list. So read about their origins and rise to fame, praise them, mock them and perhaps learn, like Bono, to be a god.

Hey Ho Let’s Go: The Story of the Ramones
Much to my eternal surprise, this former underground American punk band has grown to be an American icon. Their songs are frequently heard on television commercials and myriad bands imitate their style and cover their songs. This is the no-holds-barred story of the Ramones, filled with bad decisions, in-fighting, drugs, and bad health. Gabba gabba hey, read this one today!

Radiohead and Philosophy:  Fitter Happier More Deductive
I have to admit, Radiohead came into their own sometime after I stopped listening to new bands on a regular basis. So I’ve never thoroughly absorbed their oeuvre. However, I know them to be a creative, innovative band. This heavy-hitting book looks at the influence of big-time philosophers on the band.

Yes indeed, I do love music, so…. What? What do you mean it’s not really Band Books Week? I gotta check this out, dear Reader. I’ll get back to you.

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.

Making Fantasy Football a Reality

I was a huge Kansas City Chiefs fan as a kid, and there are three big reasons why:

1. I lived in St. Louis between the time the Cardinals left for Arizona and when the Rams moved there in 1995. I had to look outside my city for some TDs.
2. Eventually, Joe Montana moved from the 49ers to the Chiefs. Swoon!
3. A boy I had a huge crush on wore a KC Chiefs jacket and so, really, I never stood a chance.

winning fantasy football stephen noverI’d watch games on the weekend on an old black-and-white television I was lucky enough to have in my room. I’d stay up late to watch the scores on TV whenever a game wasn’t televised. I’d try to talk to friends or family about the Chiefs but aside from my crush-worthy dreamboat, who I couldn’t approach due to my nerves and shyness, no one was interested. No one seemed to share my love of the game. I suspect this has less to do with my mediocre understanding of the NFL and more to do with the fact that in St. Louis, Cardinals baseball was, and still is, the majority of residents’ focus. They didn’t have time for football, and they didn’t have time for me.

Wah wah.

Let’s skip forward. The Rams moved to St. Louis at the same time I was starting high school. I was still a ways away from the confident, boisterous person I am today but I was starting to come out of my shell and develop my own likes and dislikes based less on what cute boys wore on their backs and more on my own fast-changing opinions. At some point I had to make a choice: I could stay up late to watch the Chiefs or Conan O’Brien. There was no contest, and I remain Team Coco today. My love for the game faded and I’m sad to say that as an adult who dropped her cable TV subscription years ago, I barely have time for the Super Bowl.

To me, St. Louis never really came to embrace the NFL quite like Seattle does. Now that I live in Seahawks country I am exposed to the game by proxy as coworkers and neighbors share in the Hawks’ wins and losses. I still haven’t gotten back my intense love of the game, but I think that may change. I have discovered fantasy football.

Fantasy football combines the love of the game, obsession with statistics, and dreams of your own perfect team together into one solitary, wonderful hobby. Or lifestyle. Hey, I’m not judging. I seriously don’t know what to call it!

There are several free and easy ways to get started building your own team, one of which is directly on the NFL website. I’m working on putting my own dream team together for this season and trying to recruit like-minded friends to join forces to form our own league next season. In a league everyone drafts their team from one group of players, meaning one football player can only be on one fantasy team. Drafting can get dicey, so I’m preparing a list of tiebreakers and other hopefully fair ways to settle our inevitable disputes.

I’m glad I have a year to get my brain wrapped around fantasy football, because there is a lot to learn. The library has a fantastic resource you can check out called Winning Fantasy Football: How to Play and Win Your Fantasy Football League Every Year by Stephen Nover. This book is packed with everything I don’t know about the game, and weighs in at almost 300 pages. I’m also going to rely on The Everything Kids’ Football Book by Greg Jacobs. There’s a nice, tidy, 10 page chapter on fantasy football that does a really great job of explaining the basics. But I’m already familiar with many of the concepts because I am obsessed with a little TV show called The League

league season 1The League takes place in Chicago and centers around an eight man fantasy football league. Each season of the show covers a single football season and follows the completely juvenile antics of league players, their jobs, their families, and their lives in general. The League is a completely raunchy and immature show, which is why it has become one of my favorite shows of all-time. It’s semi-scripted, which means that the writers come up with the basic plot points and leave the actors, who are all amazing comics in their own right, to spitball and improvise the dialogue. Comedians Nick Kroll (Ruxin), Mark Duplass (Pete), Paul Scheer (Andre), Jon Lajoie (Taco), Stephen Rannazzisi (Kevin), Katie Aselton (Jenny), and Jason Mantzoukas (Rafi-my favorite!) bring their own individual voices and styles to the characters they portray–and I can’t get enough of it.

I spoke to the DVD selector here at the library, who told me the library will be acquiring this immensely funny and completely dysfunctional TV show for the collection later this year. While I don’t have a link to the catalog for you, I suggest you keep checking the waiver wire and you’ll be able to pick it up when it becomes a free agent. Or whatever we fantasy football players say.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go draft my team. I think I’ll follow the lead of Rafi from The League and try to pick up The Hulk via Bruce Banner. As Rafi once sagely stated, “Hey, it’s fantasy football. So the Hulk should be able to be on the team.”

Inside the Northwest History Room: Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

Sanborn 1914 title pageHere in the Northwest History Room of the Everett Public Library, we get frequent visitors looking into the history of buildings and land usage. One of the first resources we point people to is our collection of Sanborn Fire Insurance maps. We have the set of 1914 maps, and a copy of the 1914 maps that was updated in 1955 to show the present state of the land. These dates come in handy for people who own older non-compliant structures because they can be grandfathered in if they predate 1955.

Aside from being able to check if your porch or outbuilding might be able to be grandfathered in, a lot can be gleaned from comparing the 1914 and 1955 maps. For example, in these two photos, you can see how the old Everett Flour Mill was gradually replaced by the sprawling Scott Paper Co. Mill (click images to enlarge).

1914 view1955 view

Over time, this expansion meant altering the natural landscape by filling in some of the tidelands and building over them on piers. Roads and rails were altered to make way.

These two photos show the expansion of residential buildings that happened at 26th and Rainier. One can see how some buildings changed use, for example going from being a dwelling (‘D’) to being a shed, or gained or lost outbuildings. Some houses, surprisingly, remained mostly the same over the course of those 41 intervening years (click images to enlarge).

1914 view1955 view

Lastly we have the key that helps us interpret all the colors and symbols used in the maps. This provides us with a wealth of information about the construction of the buildings, from the materials used on the exterior walls, to the types of windows and skylights present, to the appearance of the chimneys. This is really useful for people who are looking to restore their homes to an earlier appearance, or for people who are trying to discover what a demolished building looked like when no pictures exist (click image to enlarge).

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps key

 

I invite you to come down to the Northwest History Room at Everett Public Library’s Main Library to see what you can find out about your home, or any other Everett property you might be curious about – either David or I would be happy to show you how to use our map collection.