Star Trek, Soccer, and Ancient Persian Kings

From the opening pages of Adib Khorram’s brilliant debut Darius the Great is Not Okay, it is painfully clear how much truth there is in the title. Darius Kellner, the sweet and immediately endearing teenage narrator, is struggling. For starters, Darius is a target at school. His taste in pop culture gravitates towards the nerdy, he is somewhat obsessed with tea (provided it is properly brewed and unsweetened), his medication makes him gain weight, and he is half-Persian, exposing him to the lamest and cruelest Islamophobic taunts the bullies at school can concoct.

Darius-the-Great-Is-Not-OkayIf these problem aren’t enough, Darius is also feeling isolated from his family. His mother’s side lives in Iran and while his mom and little sister speak Farsi, Darius’s language skills are undeveloped. Whenever they gather around the computer for a video chat, Darius can’t help but feel like an outsider. He also fears that he perpetually disappoints his father. Darius seems to have inherited very little from him: not his fair all-American looks, his math skills, nor his ability to blend-in and “be normal.” They only have two things in common, clinical depression and a love for Star Trek. As the gulf between father and son widens, Darius sadly reasons that his younger sister is his replacement – a chance for his parents to get things right.

When his grandfather’s health takes a turn for the worse, Darius’s parents decide it is time to travel to Iran and meet his mother’s family. Darius is apprehensive about this trip but also eager to discover connections to his family and his people’s history.  In Yazd, the city his family calls home, Darius continues to struggle to find acceptance. His grandfather and uncles tease him about his weight and are puzzled that a healthy young American boy would need medication (antidepressants) to be happy. In Yazd, Darius also makes a friend, perhaps his first best friend, a teen named Sohrab who lives down the street. Sohrab has had his own struggles with intolerance and oppression and he seems to understand Darius and embrace his individuality. His friendship with Sohrab allows Darius to see himself in a new light – as someone who might belong. But he is aware that their time together is running short and he must figure out how to reconcile the version of Darius he has discovered in Iran with the life waiting for him at home.

This is a special book on several levels. Khorram notes in the book’s afterword that he “wanted to show how depression can affect a life without ruling it” and he strikes that balance masterfully. I appreciated that it is just one small part of who Darius is. It does not define him. Novels that deal with mental illness often focus on diagnosis and characters’ struggles to win their lives back. Many of these works are compassionate, essential works for young readers, but it is also important for youths to have books like this one where depression is a detail in the story, not the story itself.

Khorram also skillfully weaves family history and Iranian cultural heritage into his book without ever distracting from Darius’s powerful struggles with identity and self-worth. Like real relationships, those in this book are nuanced, weighed down by past hurts, miscommunications, and words left unsaid. But this book is also about a loving family, determined to reconnect and support each other despite sometimes not knowing how to do so. Rooting for Darius as he bonds with his grandparents and navigates Iranian customs, family politics, and traumas big and small is incredibly rewarding. Darius is a character you won’t want to leave and won’t soon forget.

The Lost Queen by Signe Pike

The Lost Queen by Signe Pike is a work of historical fiction with a lot of real world research behind it.

Signe Pike found a book in England titled Finding Merlin by Adam Ardrey. It presented compelling evidence that Merlin was based on Lailoken, who had a twin sister Languoreth . After doing lots of research, Ms. Pike pieced together the tale of the twins, and their hardships in the sixth century in Scotland. Lailoken became a Wisdom Keeper, and Languoreth was married off to Rhydderch to strengthen the bond between the two kingdoms.

Languoreth became a great Queen of Strathclyde, but history has forgotten her (hence the title of the book). This story shows the intricacies of the politics of the time and all the behind the scenes intrigue that they both had to live with. Parts of the story were heart wrenching, but for the most part it was an exciting and riveting tale. I really enjoyed it and fell in love with the characters.

This is the first book in a trilogy, and I can’t WAIT for the next one!

Trapped in the 80s!

I find myself talking more and more these days about things that happened 40 years ago. In an effort to move towards the present, today we look at music that was recorded 30+ years ago. It’s a small step but… hey, get off my lawn!

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Synthesizers became commercially available in the 1960s, and one can hear them pop up on Abbey Road and other late 60s gems. But it wasn’t really until new wave arose that synths became a common tool of the trade. Bands such as the Cars and B-52’s used synthesizers as a lead instrument, filling in for or working in tandem with lead guitar. Eurythmics, not thought of primarily as a synth pop band, permeated their music with keyboards. Recommended cuts: Candy-O, the first song I ever sang in public, from the Cars’ 6-album compilation The Elektra Years; 52 Girls off of B-52’s Time Capsule, a raucous dance tune punctuated by screams of, “Tina Louise!”; and Would I Lie To You?, another confirmation of Annie Lennox’s complete domination of all earthlings, from the Eurythmics’ Ultimate Collection.

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Other groups relied primarily or entirely on synthesizers to create their music. Kraftwerk, formed in 1970, gives us an early example of electronic rock. Their music was often cold and spare (referred to as robot pop by the band), a mechanical dream (or nightmare!) of precision. Recommended cut: Pocket Calculator from Computer World, a machine-driven paean to that earliest of hand-held computers, the pocket calculator.

Human League hit it big in 1981 with the single Don’t You Want Me, which spawned the first video I ever saw on MTV. This song came off the brilliant album Dare, but their previous album, Travelogue, was also a big hit in the UK. With a dazzling array of sounds ranging from synthetic drums to sweet strings to buzzsaw explosions, Human League delivers catchy, infectious grooves to your ear sacs. Recommended cut: Empire State Human from The Very Best of the Human League, a quirky, swirling circus of calliope surrounding the lyrics, “Tall, tall, tall, I wanna be tall, tall, tall…”

In a similar vein, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark uses synths for all aspects of their music. Their style is a bit more toward the techno sides of things, although many synth pop gems adorn their catalogue. Recommended cut: Enola Gay off of The Best of OMD, a catchy synth pop look at the bombing of Hiroshima.

NewOrder

Rising from the ashes of post-punk poster children Joy Division in 1980, New Order did not immediately bring an unrelenting dance beat to their music. However, by 1983 they had created the best-selling 12-inch single of all-time, Blue Monday, a favorite dance club number. Eventually, the band transitioned into pure pop dance music filled with synthesizers as well as typical rock band instrumentation. Recommended cut: Age of Consent off of The Best of New Order, a toe-tapping, happy little tune filled to the brim with gorgeous electronic sounds.

So, there you have everything that is known about synthesizers. Perhaps print a copy for your own reference or to give to a friend. Oh, and be sure to check out these and other albums to see what someone clever can do with electricity and a keyboard.

Spot-Lit for November 2018

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 2018 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction

Find Your Voice and Vote!

Hey, congratulations on turning 18! You made it through the worst of adolescence and you’re trying out life as an adult. It can be fun and scary, sometimes both at the same time. Discovering what issues are important to you is a big first step into adulthood. And once you figure out what’s important, it’s time to vote.

Yup. I’m that guy bugging you to vote. In Washington State if you’re 18 or will turn 18 by November 6th you can still register to vote in person but you have to act fast–today is the last day! In Snohomish County that means you have until 5pm tonight to get to the County Auditor’s office. I promise that getting the ability to vote in this election will be well worth your trouble.

You might be new to this whole adulting thing, but perhaps you’re already a little jaded about politics. I can’t blame you. The last few years have been the most politically chaotic I’ve experienced in my lifetime. But I promise that finding out what’s important to you and where you stand on political issues will help you make informed decisions when it’s time to fill out that ballot.

The Washington State voters’ pamphlet–pick one up at the library if you need one–is your key to the issues and candidates on the ballot. Beyond that, you might have some soul-searching to do. That’s where this reading list comes into play. These books are aimed at young voices looking for something to say and will help you select the best candidates on the ballot that uphold the same priorities and values that you do.

First, let’s dive into the issues. Steal This Country: A Handbook for Resistance, Persistence, and Fixing Almost Everything by Alexandra Styron brings together essays, profiles, and interviews to help you understand the issues and help you determine how you feel about them. From LGBTQIA rights and racial justice to climate change and immigration, this comprehensive book can be your companion as you discover what’s important to you. Be sure to check out the bibliography in the back. It’s divided by topic and lists books, documentaries, articles, and organizations you can seek out to go even more in-depth.

Next, let’s read about what political passion and social activism look like to different people. How I Resist: Activism and Hope for a New Generation edited by Maureen Johnson brings together a diverse and dynamic group of voices that come from all angles: the literary world, entertainment, and political activists. There are essays, interviews, a comic strip, and even sheet music! Together they’ll give you hope and inspiration as you explore the many different ways to raise your voice and be heard.

Girls Resist: A Guide to Activism, Leadership, and Starting a Revolution by KaeLyn Rich may be written expressly for girls, but I’m here to tell you the information inside can be useful to everyone regardless of gender. This book takes the ideas, causes, and issues that are important to you and gives you the framework to take action. Do you want to start a volunteer group? What about a political campaign? Could social media be a way to reach other like-minded folks? And how do you explain all of this to your parents? KaeLyn Rich is an activist who is the Assistant Advocacy Director of the ACLU of New York. She knows just how to break it down.

You are Mighty: A Guide to Changing the World by Caroline Paul and illustrated by Lauren Tamaki is the book you can hand to your younger brother or sister who see you getting energized. Maybe they want to help you with your cause or have a different one of their own. They’re too young to vote but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing they can do to effect change. Some of the tactics discussed, including raising money and boycotting, are tactics you can use too. What better way to feel closer to your siblings than to protest together?

So. Do you feel ready? The truth is even as adults we’re constantly learning new things and over time we can sometimes change our mind. The issues we cared about when we were younger might cease to be important to us or a change in our life may cause us to see the topic from a completely different angle. These books will give you the critical thinking and organizational skills you need to keep up with whatever life throws at you. All that’s left to do is cast your vote.

Wheel in the Sky Keeps on Turning

Philip Tonkin is healing. Fast. It should be impossible, no, it IS impossible because he was smashed flatter than a proverbial pancake. Nearly every single bone in his body shattered and he was in a coma for six months and yet he’s awake now and beginning to move. But waking only fuels Philip Tonkin’s nightmare.

In Josh Malerman’s Black Mad Wheel it’s the 1950s and Tonkin and his band The Danes have had a brush with fame with one of their songs. They’re in a studio helping to produce another band’s music. The Danes met and formed while serving in WWII. They didn’t consider themselves soldiers, just musicians serving Uncle Sam. One day while sitting in a bar in between songs, they’re approached by a man with the government who tells them about a sound emanating from the Namib Desert in Africa. Officials haven’t been able to pinpoint the sound’s exact origin, not even after sending in two other teams who came back empty-handed.

The band agrees to give the sound a listen and back in the studio they watch the GI man put earplugs in. Never a good sign. The reel to reel is set up and PLAY is pressed. The sound begins as nothing at first and then comes out as almost more of a feeling than a sound. The band members begin to vomit and curl in on themselves with pain. The reel to reel is stopped and as the band struggles to recover physically and mentally from the eerie sound, the government man says they’ll each get $100,000 to travel to the Namib Desert and find the sound’s location. They have 24 hours to decide. After that, the deal is off the table. After mulling it over, the Danes decide to do it. If anyone can do it, a group of musicians should be able to hunt the sound down.

Sounds easy peasy, yeah?

No.

They endure the journey to the desert, flying in a military plane. Getting nearer the sound the men begin to sicken, the noise a squeezing thrum of a physical presence. The GI man sets them and all their recording equipment in the desert along with a historian, an old drill Sargent from boot camp who has been mysteriously turned out of the military. The GI man says he will be back to collect all of them in exactly two weeks, he says, and leaves them in the desert.

Then the ‘Black Mad Sh*t’ begins to hit the fan.

A band member is taken by a strange creature that leaves goat like hoof prints in the sand. They begin the search for him but he’s vanished.

In between recounting the band’s mission, Philip Tonkin wakes from his long coma in an Iowa hospital. Ellen, a nurse, has been caring for him for six months and has grown attached to him. He’s shot full of painkillers around the clock and she’s shocked that someone whose body has been nearly obliterated has not only survived but, upon waking, slowly begins to move.

His body is in ruins and his mind scarred from the desert, but he knows the rest of the Danes are still alive somewhere in that desert. But the hospital he’s in is no ordinary hospital and his doctor is ‘off’ in a way no doctor should be. Ellen does as she’s told but has begun to question the doctor’s motives. So has Philip. Something dangerous is happening. And something even worse is about to go down.

Black Mad Wheel is full of shadowy government dealings, a heavy and palpable supernatural presence, and the paranoia that the unknown is going to be weaponized before the ‘good’ guys can find it. Put your earplugs in if you don’t think you can handle it. I bought mine in bulk from Costco.

More Adventure Awaits

I am sorry to say I haven’t read anything by Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS to scholars, Louis to his friends), but I’ve come close by reading Brian Doyle’s The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World: a novel of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Doyle, an extreme fan, acknowledges in the preface that his book is a celebration of the man whose writing he admires above all other writers in the English language. Then, writing in Louis’ voice, Doyle goes about conjuring up the four months Louis spent in the winter of 1880 in San Francisco. It was a difficult time for Louis, having left behind a comfortable life of wealth and privilege in Scotland to make his way to California and the woman he intended to marry.

His health is bad and he has very little money. He waits out the impending divorce of Fanny Osborne, who is living across the bay in Oakland with her two children. He rides out the four months staying at a boarding house on the corner of Hyde and Bush streets. This part is all true. The rest is Doyle’s writing skill.

The story is primarily one wild tale after another as told by retired sea captain John Carson and recounted by Louis. Each day Louis, if he feels well enough to get out of bed, gets to know the city and returns to a roaring fire in the fireplace of his boarding house. Just as his host Mr. Carson is getting to the good part of each story, however, boarding house owner and cook Mary Carson calls everyone to dinner in no uncertain terms.

The other character in this tale is the city itself. You will feel the fog on your face and feel the muscles in your legs ache when climbing the stair-stepped slopes of San Fran along with Louis. You’ll feel Louis’s generosity of spirit and the love he was heading toward in marrying Fanny. And you will just feel beautiful writing enveloping you.

Then you’ll wonder more about the real life of Robert Louis Stevenson. And, let me tell you, there is plenty to find out. If you just want a quick but satisfying read with photos of Louis in the South Pacific, I recommend a tiny little booklet in the Northwest room called R.L. Stevenson Poet in Paradise by Maxine Mrantz. Then there is a more complete telling of Louis’ whole life in Claire Harman’s Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson.

To cap it all off, take a quick trip down to the 10th street boat launch road in Everett and stand just a few feet away from what is left of the Equator, the boat that brought Louis to his final destiny, Samoa.