Heartwood 8:4 – People in the Room by Norah Lange

Norah Lange’s short novel, People in the Room is told from the perspective of an unnamed seventeen-year-old girl living with her family in Buenos Aires in the early part of the twentieth-century. The reader senses in the early pages that this is an imaginative narrator eager to escape the stultifying experiences of her family life. She’s afforded an escape of sorts when a lightning storm suddenly brings together the flash of the girl’s reflection in a mirror with her awareness of three women seen through the sheer curtains of their drawing room in the house across the street. This initiates in the girl a sustained obsession with spying on the three women over a period of weeks.

Very little happens – the women seem to always be at home, sitting in the same chairs and doing little more than lifting a cigarette or glass of wine to their lips – but there is palpable tension in the protagonist’s account of what she observes and imagines regarding the women, and she eventually intervenes in their lives by intercepting a telegram addressed to them and is soon paying them daily visits. Some of the more unusual and enigmatic scenes include: the narrator hearing her own voice come from one of the three women who is speaking to a clerk at the post office; watching through the window as a mysterious stranger arrives at the women’s house and is handed a package (presumably of letters) by the eldest only to immediately transfer it to the youngest; and the narrator’s panic when she wakes to a passing funeral procession for three neighborhood children who had died in a house fire, and mistakenly assumes the caskets contain the bodies of the three women.

The narrator at times is quick to assign fault or blame to the women, claiming they didn’t deserve this or that, and she also vacillates between feelings of intense love for them and wanting to see them dead, or imagining them as criminals, as wayward, or as having something to hide. She makes statements that imply she holds a certain agency over the women; that it is her imagination and inventiveness that gives them their lives, gauzy and understated though they are. Particular objects (such as a spider, or a blue dress) can trigger a kind of associative transfer in which the objects take on importance beyond themselves, or are charged with evocative power – for example, causing the narrator think of faded letters, or instilling in her the urge to travel in the dining car of a train. There are also scenes and expressions of loneliness, anxiety, forebodings of something tragic, and talk of the slit wrists of suicides.

Finally, there is something like a psychic blending or assimilation of the three women who are “collected” and combined with the world of the narrator, as can be seen in this passage in which her mostly inattentive family notices how she has changed: ““It must be her age” others would whisper, while the three faces settled into my own, becoming accustomed to strange conversations, forever leaving their mark on my seventeenth winter.”

Lange has indicated that she started writing this novel after seeing a reproduction of a portrait of the Brontë sisters painted by their brother Branwell, who originally included himself in the portrait but later painted himself out (though leaving a ghostly trace). Given this inspiration, People in the Room could be considered a very imaginative, extended, and daring work of ekphrasis, and it’s interesting to see the protagonist also frequently referring to the three women as lifeless sculptures, or portraits, or even eerie ceramic dolls.

People in the Room, first published in 1950, appears to be the first English language translation of a work by Norah Lange, an Argentine author who was related to Jorge Luis Borges and was influenced by him and other ultraísta writers and poets with whom she associated in Buenos Aires. Readers, however, may well find the influence of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw at least as evident in this atmospheric tale that to some degree resembles an oneiric, gothic, ghost story.

But let’s not limit by comparison a work as captivating, unsettling, and poetic as this. Readers of English will want to discover this long-neglected novel, and we are fortunate now to have access to it in this nuanced translation by Charlotte Whittle.

Did You Know? (Jack-o-Lantern Edition)

The original jack-o-lanterns were turnips?

I found this information on page 31 in the book Death Makes a Holiday by David Skal. Skal explains how ‘Jack’ was a trickster who offended both God and the Devil and was not allowed into Heaven or Hell upon his death. The Devil grudgingly tossed him a piece of coal. Jack then put it into a carved turnip to light his nightly walk on earth awaiting judgment day, hence, he was Jack-o-the-lantern.

The children’s book The Story of Halloween by Carol Greene tells the story of Jack-o-the-lantern as well and explains how colonial Americans used pumpkins to carve instead of turnips, because they were more plentiful and easier to carve.

Halloween began as Samhain which means ‘summer’s end.’ The Celts celebrated Samhain by putting out their fires and taking embers from a huge bonfire the Druids would make, believing the new fires would protect them during the coming year.

While this is different from the way we celebrate now, our celebration traditions are steeped in history. Bobbing for apples honors Ponoma, the goddess of fruits and was a way to thank her and encourage a good crop for the coming year. Costumes were worn to hide the faces of children playing pranks and children begging for soul-cakes door to door were the beginnings of trick-or-treating.

Trick-or-treaters still go out every year looking for their share of goodies. Sweet by Claudia Davila tells about the history of candy. You will probably find that your favorite treat is older than you are!

Sweet Home Alaska by Carole Etsby Dagg tells the story of a little girl named Terpsichore whose family moved to Alaska during the great depression. She sets out to win a contest for growing the largest pumpkin. Her pumpkin turns out to weigh 293 pounds! Wouldn’t that be something to carve!

Extreme Pumpkin Carving by Vic Hood and Jack A Williams gives this endearing art form a whole new twist. Even if you don’t care for their designs, you will definitely want to try some of their techniques.

Finally, Jan Brett wrote a wonderful little story called The Turnip. Badger Girl finds a turnip that is so big no one can pull it up. All the animals in this story have their own recipes they want to make with the turnip. In the end, they all share it. If I was going to carve a turnip, this is the one I would choose!

One Word

The reading challenger for October is an intriguing one: read a book with a one-word title. There are so many choices. You could go classic (1984, Emma, Nostromo), popular (Outlander, Allegiant, Twilight), by color (Blue, Green, Grey) or throw caution to the wind and just plug in a word in the catalog and see what comes up. For my selection, I went with a book that has been generating some positive reviews lately: Florida by Lauren Groff. Luckily, I was not disappointed by my choice. Read on to find out why.

While the short stories in this collection aren’t connected plot wise, there is one place at the center of all of them: a fevered, humid, beautiful and dangerous imagining of the Sunshine State. Even in the few stories that aren’t actually set there, Florida is always in the mix, lurking in the background. In addition to setting, many of the characters in these stories are dealing with an unfocused anger produced by living in a world they see as being on the verge of collapse and not being able to do a thing about it.

But it is Groff’s ability to set a scene and her use of language that really steals the show. Take this quote from the story ‘Ghosts and Empties’:

The neighborhood goes dark as I walk, and a second neighborhood unrolls atop the daytime one. We have few streetlights, and those I pass under make my shadow frolic; it lags behind me, gallops to my feet, gambols on ahead. The only other illumination is from the windows in the houses I pass and the moon that orders me to look up, look up! Feral cats dart underfoot, bird-of-paradise flowers poke out of the shadows, smells are exhaled into the air: oak dust, slime mold, camphor.

Just as intriguing are the stories she tells. All are gems but here are four that you definitely shouldn’t miss:

‘Dogs go Wolf’ is the tale of two young girls apparently forgotten in a cabin on a small Florida island. Their efforts to survive are harrowing, but the real danger arrives when the adults come back.

‘Eyewall’ depicts a woman who stubbornly decides to ride out a hurricane alone. The conditions outside do not inspire fear in her but rather trigger thoughts of her past life that begin to blend with the present.

‘Above and Below’ chronicles a young woman who decides to quit college and survive free from any attachments. Without realizing it, she begins to fall farther and farther down the socio-economic ladder until deprivation feels normal.

‘At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners’ follows a young boy from his youth to middle age with a particular emphasis on the troubled relationship he has with his tyrannical herpetologist father. His attempts to distance himself just draw him further in.

While there are many single worded titles to choose from to fulfill the reading challenge for this month, why not give Florida a chance. If you do, you will be introduced to an intriguing cast of characters and a memorable setting. All without having to shell out for airfare or applying copious amounts of mosquito repellent.

Songs of the Zombie Apocalypse

Does everyone remember the desert island albums game where one answers the question, “What 10 albums would you take with you to live out the rest of your days on a desert island?” Assuming that you had a record player. And a power source. And speakers.

Perhaps a more relevant question in this day-and-age is, “What 10 CDs from Everett Public Library’s collection would you want to have during the zombie apocalypse?”

Here is my answer.

Group 1

This is the Sonics by The Sonics
For a fuzzed-out, high-energy return to garage rock’s heyday, you cannot do better than this 2015 release. Catchy riffs, gritty vocals and extreme intensity combine into 33 minutes of rock and roll perfection.

So Delicious by Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band
From the backwoods of Indiana, Reverend Peyton brings his phenomenal guitaristing and keen understanding of traditional blues to smack the world upside its head on So Delicious. A fine blend of foot-stompin’ goodness and infectious melodies make this album a tasty treat to be joyously consumed.

The Essential Louis Armstrong by Louis Armstrong
How better to spend a sunny afternoon than with a soundtrack of Louis Armstrong unfolding beneath your halcyon perambulations? His peculiar voice and spectacular trumpeting combine with tremendous musicianship to create a happy moment free from fear of the undead.

Group 2

Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! by Devo
When you’re on the run, variety is essential and Devo provides a unique listening experience. Manic energy, cuh-razee vocals and heretical interpretations of rock classics provide ample fodder to help you forget about your pathetic predicament.

Presidents of the United States of America by Presidents of the United States of America
Humor is a most excellent cure-all in trying times and the Presidents have provided it in spades. From annoying cats to annoying Californians, no topic is safe from the skewer of the POTUSA’s wit. Bonus feature: Fast tempos are conducive to fast escapes!

The Essential Django Reinhardt by Django Reinhardt
Speed-burning gypsy swing, incendiary violin and guitar solos, an inferno of perfection. Check out this soundtrack of joyous acceleration, guaranteed to propel you out of the grasp of virtually any hungry minion of death.

Group 3

Too Dumb to Die by Clambake
A pounding at the brain, brains, brrrrainnzzzz sets the old lymphatic system into a happy purr upon experiencing Clambake’s mighty thump of garage rocking goodness. Driving guitar riffs assault the senses, humorous lyrics tease the meninges, reeking zombies grab at your feet…

Road to Ruin by Ramones
24 hours to go, I wanna be sedated. This helps reduce the pain when zom… Uh, Ramones. Right. Godfathers of punk, leather coats, rock rock rock and roll… If you want to hear punk at its best, here ya go.

Only a Lad by Oingo Boingo
Speaking of ears, I seem to have only one left (coincidentally, it’s the left one), but through it I can still hear the phenomenal horns, high-energy and general weirdness of Oingo Boingo. Strange meters, uncomfortable topics and blazing fits of genius. Biggish band at its best.

Cramps

Songs The Lord Taught Us by The Cramps
Time is nearly gone and hey, the Cramps look suspiciously like those creatures that have been tracking my every move… Psychobilly, chainsaw guitars, hyperdramatic vocals. One of the most influential bands in the… aaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrghhhhhhhhh.

Reading in the Spirit of Amelia Bloomer

Working in a library is more than just knowing how to check out books, finding accurate information on any given topic, and embracing a strong love of books and reading (the better to help you find your next great read, my dear!). For some of us, library work is life work. We’re committed to libraries so much that we join local and national library associations, serve on committees, run for and hold office, and read peer-reviewed journals to keep up with industry best practices and the latest research from the field.

We also create book awards and reading lists to honor the spirit and values of trailblazers and progressive thinkers.

One library group I’ve joined is the Social Responsibilities Round Table which is a part of the American Library Association. While I’ve been an ALA member for 13 years, I didn’t join SRRT until recently. As libraries have grown to fill more roles in the community outside of providing reading and research material, organizations like SRRT provide guidance as we respond to social issues at the library. While it’s true my work here at the library is done from behind the scenes, I am always looking for ways to increase my awareness of issues important to our community so I can do a better job connecting readers with resources.

This is a long way of telling you the Feminist Task Force, part of SRRT, is made up of a ton of rad library professionals doing life work. FTF accepts nominations every year for the Amelia Bloomer List. As Jennifer Croll describes in Bad Girls of Fashion, Amelia Bloomer was the editor of the first newspaper for women [The Lily (1849-1853)], was a strong advocate for women’s rights, and saw pants as a feminist statement. Ever heard of bloomers? Yup, named after Amelia since she promoted them in The Lily.

But I’m not here to talk about pants. I’m here to talk about books. To be considered for the Amelia Bloomer List the book has to have significant feminist content, be developmentally appropriate for/appealing to young readers, and be well-written/ illustrated.

Welcome to my wheelhouse!

The Amelia Bloomer Project has started sharing the nominations for the 2019 list and I want to highlight some of my favorites. If you click the book jacket it’ll take you to the online catalog where you can access more information about each book and place a hold.

  

  

  

So there you have it: a robust book list you’d never heard of before that just made your TBR cast a shadow. Let me know in the comments which books you’ve read or want to read and let’s keep the conversation going. For feminism!

Spot-Lit for October 2018

Some definite treats are in store this October: from the frightful (Dracul, Devil’s Day), to the monumental (Anniversaries, The Novel of Ferrara), to sharp and shocking collections of short stories (Toddler Hunting, Friday Black), to excellent new work from bestselling authors, and more.

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 2018 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction

Down in Savage Land

It’s a universal truth that we can pick on our siblings and tease them mercilessly. In my case, my oldest brother used to chase me around the house wearing this hideous chicken mask with neon green curls. Can you guess what I might have talked about during a few therapy sessions in my 30s?

But God help anyone outside the family who teases or threatens our siblings in anyway. I’m the baby of the family with two older brothers. This means that in the span of one day I could have my brother sit down on me and fart and then he would get off the school bus before me so he could go toe to toe with a bully who’d been making noise about pushing me around.

That’s what siblings do.

In Sadie by Courtney Summers, there’s nothing Sadie won’t do for her little sister Mattie and that includes seeking revenge on the man who killed her.

Radio personality West McCray, who airs a wildly popular crime podcast, gets a telephone call from a stranger begging him to help find 19 year old runaway Sadie Hunter. West contends there are girls who runaway all the time. There’s no mystery there. Until the stranger tells him Sadie has runaway to seek revenge on the man who killed her 13 year old sister Mattie. West’s boss is convinced there is a story there and sends West off on the hunt to find the truth.

A year before, 13 year old Mattie’s body was found savagely mutilated next to an abandoned schoolhouse being eaten by fire. Someone had tried to destroy his handy work by setting the school ablaze; no doubt hoping it would incinerate any evidence on Mattie’s body along with the school.

Sadie has been like a zombie for the last year, going through the motions of living. Their mother is an addict who disappeared a few years ago and Sadie has brought up her little sister almost single-handedly with the help of a surrogate grandmother/neighbor May Beth. She’s the woman who called West McCray and said, “I can’t take another dead girl.”

When Sadie’s mother was around, flying high on pills or nearly comatose with alcohol, there would usually be a man around the house, one she picked up at a bar.  Some were harmless. Others tipped the creepy scales. But one man in particular was evil incarnate. Sadie didn’t realize just how predatory the man was or how far his monstrous ways reached until she began to hunt him.

Told in alternating transcripts of McCray’s podcast and Sadie’s own story of tracking the killer down, Sadie is not your average revenge tale. It’s not even about right and wrong or being alone in the world and having absolutely nothing to keep you here. It’s about the love between siblings and a life on hold until the job of revenge can be completed.

They say revenge is a dish best served cold. But what they (whoever they are) don’t know is that revenge is a white-hot agonizing fire coursing through you, a fire that can only be doused and even then it smolders and lingers like a tire fire. Sadie will feed your need for close siblings, vengeance, and the downfall of the evil that men do.