Where They Came From

A few days later, the vacation ended. I flew back to pine trees, over-cast skies, and a Michigan winter that could sputter till May. My tan faded. My tongue forgot the taste of tocino and Tagalog. I stepped out of tsinelas and back into my suburban life as if I had never left.

This is how Jay Reguero, the narrator of Randy Ribay’s profoundly moving Patron Saints of Nothing, recounts readjusting to his life in America after a visit with his Filipino family. Though Jay was born in the Philippines, his parents moved to the US when he was a young child and he has only been back once. Jay’s life has been very comfortable, and very stereotypically American – now a high school senior, he is preoccupied with friends, girls, video games, and angst over his collegiate future. 

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This all changes in an instant, however, when Jay’s father drops a bomb in his lap. Jay’s Filipino cousin Jun has been killed. Jun and Jay are the same age and had been long time pen pals before eventually falling out of contact. Jay is upset to hear about Jun, but the circumstances surrounding his death make things far worse. His father explains that Jun had run away from home, begun using and selling drugs, and was killed as part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s extreme, brutally violent “war on drugs.” Jay cannot reconcile this version of Jun with the sweet, caring young man he knew and is frustrated by his extended family’s refusal to divulge more details about Jun’s death. Jay decides to take matters into his own hands, travelling to the Philippines on his spring break to stay with his family and learn more about the last years of Jun’s life and the events that led to his death. 

In Manila, Jay butts heads with his uncle, a powerful pro-Duterte police officer, and finds himself increasingly disgusted by how quickly his family has buried all memories of Jun. Jay is also haunted by guilt for letting his friendship with Jun fade away, and both ashamed and frustrated to discover how little he knows and understands about the country where he was born. As Jay makes connections and begins to untangle the mysteries of Jun’s life and death, he must also reckon with his own family history, his disconnection with Filipino culture, and his own role in deciding his future. 

Ribay is a beautiful writer with the rare ability to immerse the reader in a specific time and place. In Patron Saints of Nothing, he deftly explores and illuminates many of the complicated, nuanced ideas connected to identity and perceived otherness that immigrants are forced to contend with daily. Jay, who has a Filipino father and a white American mother, must contend with the all-too-common microaggressions at home, yet is not “Filipino enough” in the eyes of his family in the Philippines. It is perhaps this feeling of being caught in the middle that explains why Ribay’s dedication for this book reads “For the hyphenated.” 

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Jay’s experiences returning to the Philippines reminded me of another incredible book I read earlier this year. Sabina Khan’s The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali is an intense, propulsive book about a young woman caught between cultures and the expectations they place on young people. Rukhsana is the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants. She is a talented student of physics, eager to attend a top university program in California even if that means going against the wishes of her parents who want her to stay closer to home. Rukhsana has gotten adept at balancing the pressures of her life and the demands of her traditional Muslim parents. Though it bothers her that her brother often gets preferential treatment, she plays the role of dutiful daughter while also making plans for her future and sneaking out to parties with her friends. 

Rukhsana’s carefully constructed world crashes down when her mother catches her in the worst possible scenario – making out with her girlfriend. Her parents had no idea that Rukhsana is gay and they refuse to accept this reality. To say they do not handle it well is an understatement. They start with prayers, threats, and plans to arrange a marriage for Rukhsana, then push things further, sending Rukhsana to live with family in Bangladesh under false pretenses while they train her to be a dutiful wife and find her a suitable husband. 

This is all traumatic and terrifying for Rukhsana, who has suddenly lost the girl she loves, her dreams for the future, and any illusion that her family supports her. But Rukhsana is extremely resilient and a bit of a bad-ass, and soon finds allies in Bangladesh as she searches for a way to stand up to her family, save her future, and thwart their wedding plans. While in Bangladesh, Rukhsana seizes the opportunity to learn more about Bengali culture and the things that her parents have endured and fought through in their lives. While Khan does not hold back when criticizing the violent homophobia and misogyny that persist in Bangladesh (and unfortunately are still mirrored here in the United States), she also uses Rukhsana’s difficult journey to highlight the brave people who fight to make society more equitable and accepting for all people. 

Both Jay’s and Rukhsana’s stories are deeply upsetting at times. They also have incredible redemptive arcs that show the power of family and community to learn, adapt, and become more accepting in both small and large ways. Though not the primary focus of these two stories, both books also deal with the sacrifices that immigrant families make and the ways they face adversity and build community in a new homeland.  At a time when language targeting immigrants is being weaponized to target our friends, family, and neighbors, I will be pushing myself to reinforce that the Library is a safe and welcoming place for everyone, and to read more stories about the people who strengthen our communities with their presence.

Best Music of 2019 So Far

Many people come to me and say, “Kurt, what are some of the best albums of the year?” To which I reply, “My name is not Kurt and please don’t call me late for dinner.” This rather cryptic response is typically unsatisfying, but to soothe the masses of music seekers I give you a few great albums that dropped in 2019 so far.

StrayCats

You might remember the Stray Cats as the rockabilly revival band that rose to fame during my final years of high school. Forty years ago. Although the band has essentially been broken up forever, each of the members has continued in the music business, often in the greater rockabilly genre pool. On 40, their first new album in 26 years, Stray Cats return to the maniacal gut-thumping sweet rockabilly sounds that they first explored in their self-titled 1981 release. In fact, one might hear the occasional extremely familiar riff or chord progression. But, considering that rockabilly has a fairly limited musical vocabulary (which is not a bad thing; many genres are the same way), this is not really surprising or disappointing.

Brian Setzer is now age 60, which is strangely old for someone playing youth-oriented music, but his voice and guitar have never been better. This guy is about as good as it gets. Give the album a spin or two, maybe put on some pegged jeans, throw back a PBR and indulge in a little delinquency. You won’t regret it. Unless you get caught and imprisoned.

MeatPuppets

Meat Puppets, perhaps one of the best bands you’ve never heard of, started playing in 1980, and, other than a couple of shortish breaks, they’ve been together ever since. Originally known as a punk band, their music rapidly expanded to include a bit of the country and psych vibes. Cowpunk, as the mix of country and punk came to be called, was one of the more exciting subgenres to emerge in that era. It’s never attracted too many practitioners but has definitely influenced current bands including The Goddamn Gallows and Stoned Evergreen Travelers.

If you are a person who likes older Meat Puppets albums, you will probably enjoy their latest, Dusty Notes. There’s no groundbreaking genre-expanding mind-blowing quantum leaps here, just a solid punk rock foundation covered with sweet country crooning and psychedelic sensibilities. Songs tend towards the mellow with guitars a bit more in the background than the front. And the electric harpsichord in Unfrozen Memory? Well worth the wait.

L7

L7 came to prominence in the 90s, broke up in 2001 and returned to the rock and roll limelight in 2014. Although their music resonates with a distinct punk/metal feel, the group is often associated with grunge and its big-name acts. At a time when rock and punk rock were largely male-dominated, the women of L7 went against the norms and created heavy, sleazy punk that made listeners forget all about gender and stereotypes.

2019 saw the release of a brand spanking new album, Scatter the Rats, that picks up right where the band left off. Heavy metal guitar riffage, a pervasive Joan Jett vibe, gritty rock and roll, heavy pop… Lots of variety within the punk genre. But always, that hard metallic edge picks away at your brain brain brain driving you… Well, you’ll just have to listen.

The year is barely half over and there will undoubtedly be many other great albums to hear. But for now, unless you’re a time traveler, check out these and other recently-released albums at Everett Public Library. And always remember the compelling words of Captain Beefheart:

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Abba zaba zoom

Heartwood 9:4 – Nocilla Dream by Augustín Fernández Mallo

If it could be said to have one (and it doesn’t), a lone shoe-covered tree standing along the loneliest road in America (US Route 50 in Nevada) would be the polestar of Augustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Dream. If you choose to go down this road, you’ll travel with truckers and prostitutes, artists and veterans, rock climbers and bomb defusers. You’ll check in periodically with a man who has lived for years in the Singapore airport, and a man who designs manhole covers. You’ll read about micronations, Chinese surfers, extreme ironing, transhumanism. You’ll learn that Che Guevara faked his death and was amused to find his own visage on tourist T-shirts in Vietnam.

As the above indicates, the 113 very brief chapters in this globe-hopping novel seem to be about almost everything, and they are remarkable for their fluency and concision.  Some condense a complete story into a page or two, others read like highlights from conference papers, and others indeed do draw from the writings of scientists, critics, journalists, poets, and more which have appeared in a variety of magazine articles, newspaper columns, and books. Elements in particular chapters resurface later on in seemingly unrelated chapters and otherwise intersect or overlap in surprising ways. And Fernández Mallo, like an expert juggler, keeps adding more characters (whose separate-though-sometimes-conjoined story lines are revisited periodically) to the mix.

Given the author’s background in physics, I’ve been trying to identify a physical model that best represents the structure and content of this unusual and addictive piece of writing. Is it the fractal, with its intricate repeating patterns? The atomic detritus scattered by particle accelerators in a Hadron Collider? Or maybe something from the world of art, as the book does dabble in such subjects as Land Art, conceptualism, the Situationists, and surrealism? But maybe I’m trying too hard. The model that best captures what happens in Nocilla Dream is the glowing screen that teases me with an inexhaustible hyperlinked world of connection and distraction as I attempt to write this review (and which will likely seduce you away during your reading of it).

Fernández Mallo, a poet as well as a physicist, began writing this book when he was hospitalized in Thailand after breaking his hip. He completed the novel within a matter of months when he returned to Spain, and went on to write two more in the Nocilla Trilogy (Nocilla Experience and Nocilla Lab) in quick succession (Nocilla is a Spanish knock-off of the popular hazelnut spread, Nutella, and the subject of the song “Nocilla, que Merendilla!” by the 1980s punk band Siniestro Total). The books caused a sensation in Spain when they were published in 2006 and 2007, helping to spawn a literary movement now known as The Nocilla Generation.

If you’re in the mood for a wide-ranging, collagist, ensemble novel that mixes high and low culture, the sensual and the theoretical, the scientific and the aesthetic, this will keep you entertained and perhaps slack-jawed. And it will let you know if you’re a candidate for the rest of the trilogy. It’s likely, anyway, to be more rewarding than the hours you’d spend otherwise clicking around on the internet.

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Some more detailed reviews of the Nocilla books can be found at:

The Nation
Los Angeles Review of Books
Music & Literature
Harpers

Houston: City of Magic

Despite living in Washington for nearly 15 years, I still associate summer with heat and humidity. The Houston branch of my family will tell you that the weather there will give you a “nice summer glow.” I say the icky sticky makes showering a nearly wasted effort and breathing deeply indoors is a luxury taken for granted. After reading the first part of the Hidden Legacy series by Ilona Andrews, I now think of magic, mystery, murder, and mega romance when I think of Houston.

In this series, Ilona Andrews (pseudonym for husband-wife writing team Ilona and Andrew Gordon) invites the reader into a Houston we’ve never seen before. I’ll let Andrews explain:

In 1863 in a world much like our own, European scientists discovered the Osiris serum, a concoction which brought out one’s magic talents. These talents were many and varied. The serum spread throughout the world.  Eventually the world realized the consequences of awakening godlike powers in ordinary people. The serum was locked away, but it was too late. The magic talents passed on from parents to their children and changed the course of human history forever. The future of entire nations shifted in the span of a few short decades.  Those who previously married for status, money, and power now married for magic, because strong magic would give them everything.

Now, a century and a half later, families with strong hereditary magic have evolved into dynasties. It is a world where the more magic you have, the more powerful, the wealthier, and the more prominent you are. Some magic talents are destructive. Some are subtle. But no magic user should be taken lightly.

Magic rules the world. Families with multiple magic users over more than one generation can form a House. Houses almost come across like mob families in that they are very powerful and often skirt the laws–or break them entirely.

But what if you’re a magic user who has spent your whole life hiding your talents? Being a part of a House means you generally have at least one target on your back at any given moment. The more powerful the House, the more powerful your enemies. Sometimes it’s safer to live your life with your magic hidden, especially if your powers are not well-understood and strike fear into the hearts of established Houses. Because if you are feared, you could be taken out.

Nevada is basically a human lie-detector. Catalina is a siren; she can make anyone instantly love her. And Arabella can shift into a giant beast that cannot be physically restrained. Basically, if the government found out that the sisters had these extremely rare magical talents they would be locked away in secure facilities, forced to work for them.

Yeah. No thanks! I’d rather keep my secrets to myself, too.

But such is life for the Baylor family, who are not a House because they have kept the daughters’ abilities secret. Nevada, her maternal grandmother, mother, two sisters, and two cousins all live in a large warehouse that is part home and part headquarters for their family investigation firm. Grandma brings in extra cash retrofitting vehicles for Houston’s elite Houses, and Mom is a retired military sniper. Everyone pitches in with the family business, but none is more dedicated and shoulders the burdens like Nevada. Ever since her father died of cancer and left the business in her care, she has made it her personal mission to see the family business succeed.

To ensure continued success, Baylor Investigations has three rules everyone follows:
Rule 1: they stay bought. When a client hires the family, they are loyal to them.
Rule 2: they don’t break the law, keeping them out of jail and safe from litigation.
Rule 3: most important: at the end of the day, they still have to be able to look their reflections in the eye.

These rules pop up frequently, because the Baylors, and Nevada in particular, are constantly up against powerful and deadly forces who nearly always ask them to break their personal principles in order to stop catastrophic consequences.

Powerful rogue magic users are rampaging through Houston and threatening to topple the world’s House hierarchy. These acts of terrorism have the magic community and the general population on high alert. Enter Mad Rogan, one of the most powerful telekinetics on record. He is working on the fringes to stop the terrorists and crosses paths with Nevada. At first thinking she’s a part of the conspiracy, he eventually learns to work with her in order to stop anarchy and protect society.

This is a high-concept urban fantasy/romance series where the stakes are high and the characters are well-written and relatable, despite the whole magic thing. The first three novels follow the terrorism arc with Nevada and Mad Rogan the protagonists. The novella (and the soon-to-be-published next arc) follow Catalina and her own adventures.

I’m a sucker for a series that dedicates a book to each sibling in a large, loving, and somewhat looney family. But stretch that series out with multiple books per character in a way that doesn’t feel stretched out at all but in fact feels absolutely perfect and wonderful and I think I’m obsessed? Yes. I am here for it. And now that I’ve finished what’s been published so far in the Hidden Legacy series, I’m going back to the other Ilona Andrews series and seeing what trouble I can get into.

I recommend the Hidden Legacy series for fans of superhero comics and movies, those who dig a good family saga, romance lovers, and anyone who fell in love with Harry Dresden. But don’t stop there. Fall down the Ilona Andrews rabbit hole with me. You just know it’s going to be magical.

The Imperial Radch trilogy

The first book in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Justice (winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards) opens with the protagonist, Breq, taking on a complication to her revenge quest by helping a familiar figure lying near death in the snow. It’s a quest that’s taken nineteen years, which we’re introduced to when the end finally seems in reach.

Leckie splits the timeline to show readers Breq’s motivation in one chapter, her current progress towards revenge in the next, and back again. Each chapter explains more of the far-future Breq inhabits, while raising more questions and building foreshadowing.

Told from the perspective of a former warship AI, now stuck in one single human body, the Imperial Radch trilogy interrogates the horrors of imperialism, the ripple effects of care and kindness, the ethics of placing controls on a non-human sentient entity for the supposed safety of humans, and the classic science-fiction question of “how do we decide who is a person?”

By writing entirely from the point of view of an AI character, Leckie deftly places the answers to those questions in the hands of the subject itself.

Outside of the revenge quest, Leckie uses the future setting to explore the interaction of language and gender. The culture that builds AI warships exclusively uses ‘she/her’ in its official language. Over the story, Breq must use other languages, with a variety of pronouns, and avoid giving offense or making her culture of origin too apparent.

Her frustration over inconsistencies in cultural gender markers ties back to her identity struggles; Breq’s first two thousand years of life were spent with constant access to information networks and databanks, in which she could know the appropriate pronoun for anyone around her in multiple languages in a blink. Nineteen years in a single, isolated body, the arbitrary need to choose pronouns for other people and for self-reference constantly drive home how different she is from what she once was.

With a debut trilogy this fascinating and hard-to-put-down, Leckie has established herself as an author worth watching.

Spot-Lit for August 2019

These titles – from established, new, and emerging authors – are some of the most anticipated new releases of the month, based on advance reviews and book world enthusiasm.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2019 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction | 2019 Debuts

He’s a Real Nowhere Man

Sometimes you find an absolute gem of a book in the least likely of places. For me, that unlikely place was in a grocery store.

When my mom was alive, I’d go grocery shopping with her. Unfailingly, I would find her in the book aisle after having looked for her for what seemed like an hour. She’d almost always get a paperback, one of those bodice rippers with a man in a kilt filling the cover. Mom liked her time traveling romance books. I got a lot of my love of reading from her.

So it isn’t too surprising that I ended up in the book aisle of Safeway recently. I started to peruse the shelves and discovered a book that looked like I’d want to devour it in a day. Hard to say whether Lisa Jewell’s I Found You found me or I found it.

Alice is a single mother raising three kids. Saying she has bad luck with men is an understatement. Recently, a man has washed up on the beach. Alice decides to go and see if the man needs help. He tells her he can’t remember his name or how he got there. Alice detects something in him, some tragedy and trauma, enough to hollow out his brain and leave him with giant gaps of time he can’t account for. She decides to take him in, get his clothing dry and make some phone calls.

Meanwhile, Lily is newly married and still head over heels in love with her husband who swept her away from her home country of Russia. But one day he doesn’t come home at all. Lily begins to panic because her husband is a routine fiend. She sets out in a foreign land to find her him.

The amnesiac Alice discovered on the beach spends the night in the backyard of a cottage owned by Alice’s mother-in-law. Alice introduces her three children to him. Alice’s youngest child decides to call him Frank. Bits and bobs of his memory are coming back. Alice and Frank set out to see if anything else can be found.

Lily is hitting brick walls when it comes to finding answers to her questions about her missing husband. The lives of Alice, Frank, and Lily are about to collide with horrifying results. This was one of those books where I continued to think about the characters after I finished the book and hope they were finding good days, if not awesome days.

But, I also talk to the toaster.

I need a life.

Send help.