The Teenage Brain is a Frightening Place

School’s back! I guess I’m at a funny age. I’m old enough to fool myself into thinking I miss the excitement of a new school year, but I’m also young enough to remember all of the terror, uncertainty, and anxiety that I experienced throughout middle and high school. Because of my job, I’m also fortunate to spend a lot of time with tweens and teens, both in the library and when I visit schools, and I am constantly amazed at how many teens seem so much more articulate, organized, and driven than I feel now, let alone compared to my own teenage years. I guess all of this is to say, WOW the adolescent years can be weird!

61x0HVYEP9L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Noah Oakman, the 16-year-old narrator of David Arnold’s The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotikseems to understand this fact better than most. Noah certainly has his quirks: inspired by his favorite poets and philosophers, Noah has taken to wearing the same outfit every day, what his friends refer to as his “navy bowies” (navy pants and a David Bowie shirt). It’s not just that Noah likes these clothes. He also appreciates that they allow him to avoid wasting time and energy deciding what to wear. Noah also tends to get lost in his own thoughts and has peculiar obsessions which include an old man he sees walking the same route each day, a strange yet wonderful YouTube video, and a photo dropped by a local rock star. These are a few of Noah’s titular strange fascinations.

Outside of his unique interests, Noah leads a fairly normal life. He has loving parents, two great friends, seems just popular enough to float by in high school, and is a good enough swimmer to garner some serious scholarship interest from colleges. But Noah is also supremely stressed out. His senior year is beginning bringing with it the end of an era for him and his two long-time friends. He doesn’t fully understand his little sister and worries how she will fit in with those around her. And despite being a good swimmer, he secretly loathes the sport and has no idea how to tell those around him. Rather than confront this final problem he is faking a back injury, a lie that seems to be leading him into an ever-deepening hole of deceit.

All of these stresses are wearing Noah down, which is why he finds himself drinking far too much at an end of summer party and following home a strange young man who promises to help him “exit the robot.” When Noah wakes the next morning, everything seems to have changed: his DC obsessed friend now only reads Marvel comics; his mother has an old scar on her face that was not there the day before; his old, useless, and mute dog has regained its youth and its shrill yap. Noah does not understand what has happened and fears for his sanity. As he tries to gain some level of comprehension, he discovers that his fascinations seem to be the one constant between his old life and new. He hopes that understanding the connections between these fixations might be the key to a return to normalcy or at least the closest thing he has ever known to that.

Though at times Noah is a bit pretentious, perhaps even mopey, I found it easy to root for him. He is a bundle of anxiety and self-doubt and genuinely seems to struggle to understand the value he offers to those around him. Arnold has shown in his previous work that he has a keen understanding of the teenage years and the impact that the strange mix of social pressure, ennui, feelings of isolation, and turbulent emotions can have on a developing brain and this latest work is no different. It is as odd and disorienting as it is genuine and warm-hearted. If you’re looking for a strange trip through a teen-aged mind, buckle up and grab The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik.

Northland

Of the many great things about visiting the library, one of my favorites is being able to browse the collection. You can throw caution to the wind and select a title based on whimsical things like the look of a cover, an interesting title or even the number of pages. Blame it on the whole ‘being a librarian thing’ but I usually like to do a bit of research on a title before borrowing it. Every so often, however, I succumb and just can’t resist a title I see while out in the stacks. Happily, a recent impulse borrow introduced me to a really great book.

Northland: A 4,000 Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border by Porter Fox initially drew me in with its interesting cover. The fact that I’m also a sucker for borders, weird I know, and partial to the northern climes, sealed the deal.

The basis of the book is Fox’s three year journey traveling along the U.S. and Canadian border from Maine to Washington. But this work isn’t a simple travelogue (even though the characters and incidents he encounters would be worth reading about on their own). Instead, the author intersperses his travel experiences with the surprisingly contentious history of the border as well as contemporary issues unique to each northern region that he visits. In this way, Fox brings out a lot of intriguing and vital facts about this often forgotten border that you may not know:

12 % of Americans live 100 miles from the border, 90% of Canadians do.

A 2010 Congressional Research services report stated that U.S. Customs and Border Protection maintains “operational control” over just 69 miles of the 3,987 mile border.

The border cuts the Akwesasne Mohawk Indian reservation, Niagara Falls and the Haskell Free Library and Opera House in two.

In the end, however, the human element is what makes this book so worthwhile. Whether visiting with lodge owners in Maine, bulk carrier captains on the Great Lakes, fishing guides and adventurers in Northern Minnesota, members of the Sioux nation protesting the XL TransCanada pipeline in North Dakota, or the leader of a ‘constitutional militia’ in Idaho, Fox captures the unique feel of sharing a border and the experiences of those living in the Northlands.

Northwest Rocks!

The Pacific Northwest is filled with brilliant musicians who create spectacular albums. Some of those albums find their way into the Everett Public Library local music collection. And on Saturday, September 15 at 2:00 pm, I will present a talk on some of those local musicians.

But wait, there’s more!

After the presentation, Everett’s own Oliver Elf Army will play some rock and roll tunes that shock and assault the senses. In a good way. And there will be much rejoicing.

“So,” you might say to the version of me that lives in your head, “what can I expect at this so-called talk?” Wellsir, we will delve into the history of northwest rock, attack the ever-present confusion surrounding genre definitions and witness interesting (and perhaps boring) stories about local musicians. But perhaps most importantly, we will listen to snippets of songs by various northwest artists.

Here is a preview of some of the groups that will be discussed. They appear here more or less chronologically, with a nod to their approximate genres.

Prepare to behold the instrumentals of The Frantics, garage rock from The Sonics and early local punk from The Accident.

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Thrill to the power pop of Seattle’s The Heats, proto-grunge from the U-Men and the dawn of riot grrrl punk from Olympia’s Bikini Kill.

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Bow down to the experimental offerings of Anacortes’s Mount Eerie, to the post-punk brilliance of Seattle’s Blackouts and to the wide open spaces of Nevada Backwards and their dark country musings.

Group3

Need a breather? There is no time for breathers! Behold the majesty of your northwest heritage!

Prepare to be aurally assaulted by the heavy, heavy sound of Montesano’s own Melvins, get down to the dark cabaret of Bellingham’s Pirates R Us and swing, yes swing, to the rockabilly of Seattle’s Hard Money Saints.

Group4

Dance like a dancer to the synth pop of Seattle’s Perfume Genius, foxtrot to the old-timey swing of Bellingham’s Birch Pereira and the Gin Joints and boogaloo to some raucous garage rock with Bellingham’s Clambake.

Group5

What of Everett, you say? Pogo with Sleepover Club, get blue with Ryan LaPlante and go electronic with goawaysun.

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And finally, weighing in at 325 pounds, Everett’s own Oliver Elf Army will present their brand of sinister pop in a live performance.

Oliver

 But wait! We got books:

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We got DVDs!

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We even got audio books!

AudioBook

So come see what’s happening with local music at the Everett Public Library. In the words of The Presidents of the United States of America:

It’s gonna blow… Volcano!

900 Words about Vox

As someone who is a loud supporter of reading for fun and the joys of happy story endings, it came as a complete shock to me that I very much enjoyed reading a dystopian novel that had me yelling out loud and, at one point (sorry, colleagues!) throwing the book across the room. Literally threw it like it was on fire. One of the most powerful books I’ve read this summer is set in a dystopia. I’m still grappling with this reality.

Dystopian novels are not known for happiness and wit, but the discerning reader can find both in Vox by Christina Dalcher.

This dystopian mind-f*ck posits a creepily plausible near future where the American government has created a series of laws restricting women. Women are no longer allowed to travel outside the United States. They can’t work or hold political office and their daughters are only taught basic math and home keeping in schools. Their brothers, however, get a robust education including religious indoctrination and bias-affirming readings that brainwash them into seriously believing men are superior to women and that keeping women silenced and in the home is for the betterment of society.

The absolute worst part? All American women (yup, kids and babies too) now have to wear a locked wrist device that monitors their words. Each female is allowed 100 words per day–this includes sign language, gestures, and other non-verbal communication. If you speak past 100 words before your device resets at midnight you get a shock. Another word? Another shock–only stronger this time.

It’s a damn nightmare.

The book is told through the eyes of Dr. Jean McClellan. Before the silencing, she was a well-respected linguistic scientist. During the silencing Jean is like every other American woman, which is to say she is held hostage in her new role: being a nearly-wordless woman whose only job is to serve her husband and raise her kids. When the book opens we’re about a year into the silencing and though Jean feels that bucking the system is an impossibility, she is strong of spirit and still possesses the quick-witted mind that made her the incredibly renowned linguistic expert she was before society imploded. She wants a better life for all women, but especially for her three-year-old daughter who is growing up with this as her reality.

The narrative switches back and forth from present day to the past. I often find this jarring in books but Dalcher does this nearly seamlessly and the slow burn reveals of the past, along with foreshadowing of the horrors that are to come, keep the suspense building even when you think you know what’s going on.

Jean reflects throughout the book on her previous complete political apathy. Back in college she scoffed at her roommate’s attempts to get her involved in grassroots political rallies against social injustice, preferring instead to study and focus on her boyfriend, her future. She bathed in privilege but, as privilege goes, was so cocooned from marginalized and concerned folks that she didn’t even realize how sheltered she was. Her future was guaranteed, so why should she spend time worrying about it or fighting against the mere possibility that future society could go sideways? She thought it was pointless to vote–a waste of precious time–and considered it completely unlikely anyone so overzealous would be voted into the Presidency in modern times.

Jean also discovers that monsters aren’t born, they’re made–and often through no ill intentions, but through apathy. In particular, she’s horrified to recognize her oldest son has evolved into a monster. In flashbacks we see him slowly over time vocalizing increasingly demeaning opinions about the girls in his class and women in general. Back when she could talk, sometimes Jean would challenge him at the dinner table. He’d then mention the readings they were doing in school and how religion is now a required class. Jean would think “School is weird now” but never questioned the school administration about requiring misogynistic opinion to be taught as the law of nature or why one specific religion was taught as a required class in a public school

Her husband wasn’t much help either. He often brushed off Jean’s comments as ‘boys will be boys’ but the saying silence is acceptance proves true here. By the time Jean realizes what her son has started to believe, she literally doesn’t have enough words to talk him back off the ledge because she’s required to wear that damn wrist device. Like Jean, I refuse to call it a bracelet and diminish the horrifying evil the device represents: both in the physical pain it creates but especially in representing the completely upside-down reality that made this device a legislated mandate.

This is all to say that the flashbacks peppered in with the book’s current reality are a great way to let the reader see how the dystopian society got to where it is and allows us to draw parallels between that fictional America and the one we’re living in today.

Creepily. Plausible. Near. Future.

Despite this dark tone, the very first line of the book gives you hope throughout this thrilling adventure through a desolate society. If it seems unlikely that one essentially enslaved woman among millions would be able to bring about the downfall of a patriarchal society, well, dear reader…just pick this one up and thank me later.

Spot-Lit for September 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

Da to A Terrible Country

Early each weekday morning, two hours before the library opens, one of my tasks is to find all the books, CDs, and DVDs that you, dear library user, have placed on hold. I start the hunt near the new books on the first floor and wind up in the 900s on the second floor where there is one of the best views in the city.

Titles on the holds list are sometimes so enticing that I have to add them to my ‘to-be-read’ list. My list is heavy on non-fiction, but on a rare occasion a novel will make the cut. This title didn’t even have to be put on any list. It jumped out at me when I was making my rounds: A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen. Displayed face-out, and not on hold for anyone, the cover caught my eye, particularly because above the title was this: “A Cause for Celebration.” – George Saunders. George Saunders is supposed to be a pretty big deal in the book world, so this book already had a leg-up on the rest.

The terrible county being referred to in the title is Russia.

After a lot of pressure from his older brother, Andrei agrees to leave his New York City life to help out their very old grandmother in Moscow. Brother Dima had been doing the caregiving up until now, but he has to hightail it out of the country just ahead of some Russian government/mafia types who are after him. Andrei is assured he will be playing as much amateur hockey (his first love) as he can stand, once he’s back in the land of his birth. It’s only going to be temporary, and since Andrei’s girlfriend just dumped him and his prospects of getting a university position seems to be drying up despite his 8 years of graduate studies in Slavic literature, he agrees to go. A change of scenery and culture may be just what he needs.

What he imagines happening – bonding over a lot of family history, joining a hockey team and fitting back into a culture he left when he was 5 – is not so simple. The time is 2008 and he has trouble getting wi-fi in the apartment and a good cup of coffee. Grandma can hardly hear, is in and out of the throws of dementia and barely remembers who he is. And, he has trouble infiltrating a hockey game. Black Mercedes and Audis are all over Moscow with mobster-like men getting out of them.

In Russia, everything has layers and layers of history and you’re never quite sure if talking with someone will get you pistol-whipped when you’re least expecting it. But there are ways to retaliate, whether it’s on the ice in a hockey game or by documenting your experiences and sending it out into the world. There’s not just danger and Soviet-era ruins and political intrigue here. There’s also romance in a reversed Dr. Zhivagian sort of way. And lots of beer and vodka.

What Andrei finds in Russia is not exactly what he was after, but he does figure out what’s important to him. This story will help you understanding Russia and Russian culture just a little bit more from a very human side, even if it’s just make-believe.

To tell you the truth, this book kind of made me want to go to Russia, but mostly, it made me think, what else has this guy written?

You Don’t Have to be a Witch About It

Adriana Mather’s How to Hang a Witch had me at the description: Mean Girls meets the Salem Witch Trials. I kept imagining a group of teen witches in black velvet pointy witch hats saying “On Thursday’s we wear black.” Pause. “And like, every other day of the week too.”

Sam Mather is going through a pretty crappy time. Her father had successful heart surgery but slipped into a coma. For the last four months the doctors can’t figure out why he’s not waking up. Sam’s mother died when she was little and her father remarried. Sam and her stepmother get along, but with the stress of the last few months their verbal sparring is right up there with Rocky fighting that Russian boxer. Money’s getting tight and the medical bills are piling up. Sam’s stepmom sells the only house she’s ever known and moves them from New York to Salem, Massachusetts.

Sam’s got an attitude problem. I know. Shocker. A teenager with attitude. But Sam is kind of a lone wolf, hanging out by herself and never really making friends. She says what she means and means what she says. In Salem, they move into the giant house of the eccentric grandmother Sam never met. Sam’s father never spoke of his mother and Sam thought it was to keep her oddness from tainting the rest of the family. Strange things begin to happen around the house: things moved, books knocked over, threatening notes left to tell Sam to leave. Sam begins attending her new high school and isn’t surprised when she’s both ignored and gawked at.

The Salem residents are huge on their history of witchcraft and the trials. There’s a group of girls who dress all in black and call themselves the ‘Descendants.’ You guessed it. They’re the daughters of the women and men accused of witchcraft hundreds of years ago. You know what else. Sam Mather is a descendant of Cotton Mather, the ring leader of the witch trials and the man who sent many innocents to their deaths. Once everybody catches wind of who Sam is, things go from worse to disastrous.

Bad things begin to happen the moment Sam arrives in town. There are sudden deaths and a food poisoning outbreak from cupcakes that Sam brought to school as a gesture of goodwill. At a party, everybody is struck by a rash except Sam. The students, especially the Descendants, believe it’s all Sam’s doing. Sam has found a secret room in her grandmother’s house full of books on the occult and her personal journals. Her grandmother believed there was a curse linked not only to her family but to the Descendants as well.

The odd happenings in the house coalesce and a ghost appears. An extremely angry ghost. And of course, extremely good looking. There’s chemistry between them. He’s over 300 years old and once lived in the same house. I like older dudes too, but have yet to meet one that has been around through several wars and can walk through walls. He decides he wants to help Sam with the curse. The Descendants and Sam come to an uneasy truce, forming an alliance to find the origin of the curse and break it. For awhile there, it seems like the town’s going to go all Walpurgisnacht on Sam and repeat history by blaming her for all the bad things going down. It’s a race to change both history and the present.

This book had so many unexpected plot twists that I actually yelled at my dog “You have to read this book!” and then felt bad because he looked at me like “You know I don’t have thumbs to turn the pages.” Witches and witchcraft have long interested me and I’d probably be a Wiccan if I weren’t so lazy. Look, if you want to read a book about family history that keeps repeating itself on a loop, ghostly love, and modern witchcraft, pick up How to Hang a Witch. It’s also about people not being what they seem at first blush and how we’re not our history but who we make ourselves in our time.

Pleasant reading, fellow book lovers. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have rituals to complete under a full moon while dancing around a bonfire and chanting. Nah. Like I said, I’m lazy. I’ll just light a bunch of candles, shuffle around in my version of a dance and my chanting will be just me messing up the lyrics to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song.’