Vancouver, the Canadian One

There is a saying: Nothing good ever comes out of Canada.

I might be paraphrasing.

Irregardless, other than currency that can easily be altered to look like Mr. Spock and curling, nothing good ever comes out of Canada.

Except poutine. And Canadian bands like the New Pornographers.

Hailing from Vancouver B.C., the New Pornographers fall somewhere in the power pop/indie pop continuum. From the release of their first album, Mass Romantic (2000), to the present, the band has garnered respect and accolades: Mass Romantic was chosen the 24th best indie album ever by Blender magazine, Electric Version (their second album) was voted the 79th best album of the decade by Rolling Stone magazine and Brill Bruisers (2014) charted at #13 in the U.S. Yet I’m guessing that many of us have never heard of this successful band. As a proper introduction, let us look at their fifth album, Together, from 2010.

NPTogetherSugar-sweet pop, tight harmonies and a happy mood dominate the songs on Together. A distinct ELO influence is heard in the vocal harmonies as well as in the use of strings and classical-oriented interludes. Many songs are driven by guitars, but keyboards also play a significant role. Unlike typical pop music, Together’s songs unfold in a variety of complex ways, often with introductions that starkly contrast the bodies of the songs. Unusual time signatures and accents combine with frequent texture changes to create intriguing musical palettes. In short, Together could easily become one of my favorite albums.

Perhaps what I like best about this album is that songs do not go where expected. Or start where expected. Take for example Your Hands (Together). At the start of this song the music starts and stops frequently until finally the drums enter playing triplets, which creates a strange rhythmic juxtaposition. Later, instrumental breaks which in most songs would be filled with solos are here filled with space – making them seem like anti-solos. Throughout the song textures change often, for example drums coming in and out rather than playing continuously. Overall, this song is a pleasant surprise that keeps the listener guessing.

Together is one of those unexpected gems that one finds every now and again. If you like catchy music that’s a bit on the different side, give this one a spin.

White Lung is another noteworthy Vancouver band. When they started out in 2006, the group played primarily punk and hardcore. Recently their music has evolved to a slightly more poppish sensibility. Deep Fantasy (2014), however, fits squarely into the hardcore category.

WLDeepIf I had to pick a single word to describe Deep Fantasy, it would be dense. Vocals, guitar and drums are astonishingly busy, the band’s sound palette tends to be bright and distorted, tempos are fast, songs are very short. As we say in the recording biz, they saturate the tape. Lyrics deal with heavy life issues: addiction, dysmorphia, rape culture. Coupled with the aggressive music, these lyrics are quite compelling.

The first song, Drown with the Monster, is an excellent introduction to this impenetrable wall of sound. The listener is immediately hit with urban assault guitar and rapid-fire drums. These are quickly joined by harpy-inflected (in a good way) vocals. Though there are relatively peaceful moments, the song is a 2:04 blitzkrieg of the senses. With its abrupt ending, one cannot help but feel relief. And then to cue it up again.

So yes, Regina, good things do come out of Canada on occasion. The Vancouver music scene is filled with impressive performers who make albums that can be found at EPL. As always, check them out.

The Princess and the Page by Christina Farley

Keira, the heroine of The Princess and the Page by Christina Farley, uses a magic pen to write a story for a contest and ends up winning a trip to France. She takes her best friend Bella and her mom. It ends up that the story she wrote is actually set in the castle they are staying in. The problem is: Keira didn’t know she used a magic pen to write her story or her family’s history of being word weavers.

Keira and Bella meet Chet at the castle and end up having adventures that weren’t on the girls’ itinerary as Keira keeps getting pulled into the story. When she wrote the story she had been angry at her mom and gave it an “unhappy ever after” ending. Now she has to discover a way to change the story to save her life, and that of her Mom and Bella.

I really like fantasy and fairy tale types of stories, so this was a fun book for me. It had just enough twists and turns to keep me wondering what was going to happen next!

Book and an Album: Identity and Otherness

If you want to excite a Librarian, tell them that a book award is being announced. Seriously, try it. We love these prize/honor lists because we get to see incredible authors and illustrators get the recognition they deserve, but also because it is a surefire way to find remarkable books to read and share with others. I discovered Watched by Marina Budhos when it was named an honor book for the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. A short plot summary was enough to convince me I had to read this book.

Naeem is a young man caught between expectations and desires. As a first generation Bangladeshi immigrant, he is aware of the sacrifices that his parents make for him, and feels the pressure to succeed. As a Muslim, he knows that he is expected to be respectful and pious even while he questions his faith. And finally, as an older brother he knows that he is a role model to a young boy who reveres him.

Watched-CoverYet Naeem has his own ideas. He goes to school in Queens and his experiences are far different from his parents and other elders. And because Naeem is a teenager, his brain is hardwired to make some rash decisions (really – it’s science). After making a string of poor choices, it isn’t too surprising when Naeem finds himself in an interrogation room facing accusations and likely arrest by the NYPD. Instead, the police offer Naeem an alternative – watch his neighborhood and its mosques, report on “suspicious” activity, and make some decent money in the process.

Naeem desperately agrees to this offer and things start off fairly well. Naeem feels like a hero. He believes that by watching his neighborhood he can keep trouble makers from ruining the reputation of the hard-working majority of his community. It doesn’t hurt that he is also earning enough money to help his parents make ends meet. But as the pressure to produce actionable intelligence increases, and the police turn their focus to people close to Naeem, he faces difficult choices about his identity, his community and his sense of right and wrong.

While Watched deals with heavily politicized topics, the book has few outright heroes or villains. Watched works largely in the gray, giving complex motives to characters whether they are exploitative police officers, terror suspects, misunderstanding parents or troubled teenagers. The ideas in this novel are as nuanced as the characters and Budhos uses Naeem’s trials to explore difficult questions. Among the most significant concepts in Watched is that of the “good immigrant,” a nebulous phrase that can serve as a disservice to both those it includes and excludes. Watched is a compelling story that left me unsettled, challenged my assumptions, and rewarded my time.

a0908914594_16Need an album to pair with Watched? Try the Swet Shop Boys’ debut album, Cashmere. Swet Shop Boys are the rappers Heems and Riz MC, better known as the actor Riz Ahmed. Together, they make music that is both pointedly political and raucously hilarious, with gorgeous production that leans heavily on South Asian samples. Heems and Riz MC trade rhymes exploring identity, race, inequality and otherness with dexterity, refusing to shy away from controversy and pushing the comfort boundaries of the listener. Given that Heems first broke out as part of the group Das Racist, with the song Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, it should come as no surprise that this album has plenty of lighter moments and more than a few explicit references. Make no mistake; this is an album that provokes. Several of the songs tell stories from perspectives that may offend. Yet these are also stories that feel real and urgent, presenting perspectives that are underrepresented in both popular music and hip-hop.

Spring Cleaning Reading List

Confession time: I am the absolute worst at keeping everything clean and neat. Some people are extremely organized, and I’ve never been able to understand how they got that way. Other people turn to cleaning and organizing precisely when they feel stressed, as it gives them a measure of control over their environment and gives them something else to focus on for a while. Then there are people like me whose homes and work spaces always seem to be in chaos, as other priorities always seem to trump cleaning and organizing. Whether you’re extreme like me or fall somewhere else on the neatness Bell curve, here are some books that will help us out.

First, let’s talk about clutter. There’s no point in cleaning if there’s stuff to be put away, purged, or repaired, right? This logic is usually what keeps me from progressing with any home organizing or cleaning project. Fortunately The Home Decluttering Diet: Organize Your Way to a Clean and Lean Home by Jennifer Lifford exists. A rare combination of visual appeal and useful information, this book takes you through each room of your house and helps you make those tough decisions about what to keep and what to send away. Within each room, Lifford breaks the work down into smaller projects that are easier to chip away at so that procrastinators like me can’t use the “I don’t have time to do the whole room tonight” line. Every. Single. Night.

If this book doesn’t appeal, try the more direct Unf*ck your Habitat: You’re Better Than Your Mess by Rachel Hoffman. While the title is eye-catching, the blurbs on the back by personal heroes Kelly Sue DeConnick and Cory Doctorow are what sold me. It’s based on a 20/10 system where you clean for 20 minutes and then take a 10 minute break. While this might sound completely obvious to the Martha Stewarts of the world, I need this actually written down so that I can give myself some breathing room when it comes to tackling what is already going to be an unpleasant or at least not fun project. If you’re a professional procrastinator or are really good about ignoring random junk piling up in your entryway, this book might be for you (and it’s definitely for me.)

However, if you think reading a how-to manual on decluttering is too remedial or an insult to your intelligence (seriously, there is no judgement here!) you may find inspiration from someone else’s journey to live a clutter-free life. Year of No Clutter by Eve O. Schaub shows the psychological side of clutter and hoarding. While she spends a year tackling her “Hell Room” where stuff has just piled up in overwhelming chaos, she also explores hoarding in general through some of the recognizable media out there: the TV show Hoarders and the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. As Schaub conquers her psychological clutter, you may find yourself inspired to roll up your sleeves and tackle your own “Hell Room.”

Now let’s talk about cleaning. I think you can learn a lot about them just from their titles: The Cleaning Ninja: How to Clean Your Home in 8 Minutes Flat and Other Clever Housekeeping Techniques by Courtenay Hartford and Clean My Space: the Secret to Cleaning Better, Faster–and Loving Your Home Every Day by Melissa Maker. Both books break down cleaning challenges into smaller tasks, explaining the more difficult ones in detail while also not talking down to you. There are tips for the best kinds of cleaning equipment to own (I bet my cats would love a feather duster!) and professional advice for every level of cleaner (let’s call it slacker–like me– to pro).

Finally, I turn my gaze to organization. After all, it’s the last hurdle after conquering clutter and busting those dust bunnies. And I’ve found the perfect-for-me book: Organized Enough: the Anti-Perfectionist’s Guide to Getting–and Staying–Organized by Amanda Sullivan. There’s some overlap here with decluttering, but the sections on which types of paperwork to keep and for how long really shine. The book is divided into two sections. The first part helps you learn to think differently about your stuff and your habitat. The second part cultivates specific skills that will aid you in staying organized for good. That’s great news for people like me who want to put in the work once and just be done with it.

If you don’t want to spend tons of precious time dealing with the stress and emotional work of decluttering, cleaning, and organization, join me in my spring cleaning quest that all starts with the right book.

Groundhog Day, Teenage Style

When I was young, I would hear my mother and her friends recounting their high school days. And not in a ‘remember the good old days of high school’ kind of way. Anybody who says high school was the best four years of their lives is obviously drug addled and should not be trusted. But the one thing I would hear over and over was “If I could go back knowing what I know now…..”

A few years after high school I would start saying the same thing. 22 years after graduating high school, I still have nightmares that I’m back in school but I’m 39. I can’t remember my locker combination, I haven’t done any homework for three months, and I’m starting to get that ‘I’m not going to graduate’ panic. Then I realize “I’m 39 years old. I don’t need my algebra book. These people can’t tell me when or if I’m going to graduate.” And then I wake up relieved and go to work where it’s a different kind of high school experience, but this time I get paid for it.

I love YA books and I don’t really know how to explain it. If anything, I’d rather have credit card debt than be 17 again. But there are times while reading a young adult novel that I’ll think: If I had to do it all over again, go back knowing what I know now, I could really incite a riot. I’d tell that smug AP English teacher who didn’t think I was a good writer to shove it. I’d tell the misogynistic vice principal that he wasn’t General Patton. I’d tell that one girl….well, I’d tell her everything she needed to know.

In Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall Samantha Kingston gets a do-over but not in a good way.

Samantha is a part of the most popular girls clique in high school. She’s gorgeous, has a beautiful boyfriend, and is in the prime of her life. Samantha used to be a nerd who loved to ride horses (which I don’t really understand how that makes her a nerd but whatever) but then focused on becoming popular. Her group of friends aren’t the nicest people but they’re her best friends and she would do anything for them. On Friday, February 12th, Samantha and her gang go to a house party and Samantha plans to go all the way with her boyfriend for the first time. Do people still say ‘all the way?’ Losing your virginity sounds kind of like you set it down on a shelf at Target and then walked away only to go try and find it an hour later.

Anyway, everyone is at this party and they are so drunk my own liver was starting to ache. Samantha and her friends have been drinking for hours and they decide it’s time to motor. The four of them get into a car (I know. How stupid can they be? They’ve been drinking and they get behind the wheel.) It’s icy out, they’re all feeling pretty good, the radio’s blasting and then they get into a car crash. Samantha, sitting in the passenger seat, is supposed to die.

She wakes up the next morning thinking the entire thing was a nightmare. Until the day starts playing out exactly as it did the day before, people say the same things they said before, and her classes are exactly the same as the day before. Samantha’s feeling really off but decides to go with it. She goes to the same party that night and everything happens again. She wakes up the next morning to the same day. She’s officially freaked out.

And this keeps happening.

Until she figures out she needs to start making changes. She starts off with little things and they don’t make a difference. And then she realizes she’s going to have to go big and make changes that will affect everyone.

What starts off as a seemingly regular YA book turns out to be a look inside (and you guys know how much I hate delving inside and inspecting my feelings too much) to see what we’d do not only to save others but also the sacrifices we thought we’d never have to face.

The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson

goldfishboyIn the book The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson, Matthew is a lonely boy with a germ phobia who spends his time in his room washing, cleaning and looking out the window; watching as life in his neighborhood goes by. He knows everyone’s schedules and routines.

When the old man next door has his grandkids for the summer, Matthew has something new to watch. But the kids, Casey a six or seven year old girl and Teddy a year and a half old boy, start watching and making fun of him. They make fish faces because he’s behind glass and that’s where he gets his “Goldfish Boy” nickname.

While watching one day, he sees Teddy in the front yard alone at 12:55. Matt leaves the window and then Teddy disappears. Matthew is the last one to have seen him.

Matthew used to have friends at school, but his phobia has caused most of them to drift away. His obsessions have kept him from allowing anyone to get close to him, even his parents. His parents finally make him seek medical assistance and we begin to understand what happened to him to bring on his compulsions.

Since Matt can’t make himself go outside, there are just two kids in his neighborhood that he e-mails with, Melody and Jake. They help him “investigate” the disappearance of Teddy. Against Matt’s wishes Melody comes over, and he finally opens up and talks to her about his problem.

In the end, all his time and careful observations, along with aid from Jake and Melody, help Matthew solve the mystery of Teddy’s disappearance. The support of his friends and his parents finally helps Matt to begin to break his compulsions and allows him to no longer be the Goldfish Boy.

Great Danes

If you haven’t noticed lately, Denmark has been taking the publishing industry by storm:  Specifically, the Danes ability to create a ‘quality of coziness’, hygge in Danish, is being lauded and held up as the path to an ideal and happy life. There are several new titles on the topic including How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life, The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, Happy as a Dane: 10 Secrets of the Happiest People in the World and The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident Capable Kids to name but a few. So are the Danes, and their Nordic cousins, the happiest people on earth? For the pro argument, definitely take a look at the titles mentioned above. There are other works by and about the Danes that suggest a more nuanced view however. Here are a few I’ve read and watched that might be of interest.

The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth

Michael Booth has lived and worked in Denmark for many years, even marrying and starting a family there, but he can’t quite let go of his very British wit and outlook. This gives him a unique perspective as he examines the culture of not only Denmark but also the other Nordic countries he travels to including Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. He finds much to admire (a strong sense of community and egalitarianism) but also sees some contradictions (a distrust of exceptionalism and pressure to fit in). None of his musings are mean-spirited, he clearly loves his adopted culture, but he does enjoying taking a few hilarious jibes at their foibles (Swedes seem incapable of addressing each other, let alone forming a proper queue). This work is a great place to start if you want to examine the Nordic cultures with a more critical eye.

Karate Chop & So Much for that Winter by Dorthe Nors

Nors is an outstanding Danish writer who specializes in brief tales that seem to hover on the surface of things but ultimately expose a deeper and often darker meaning underneath. She likes to experiment with form as well, with her subject often being contemporary culture and an individual’s place in it. Karate Chop is a collection of brief short stories, many just a page or two in length, that exposes the weirdness lurking underneath the seemingly mundane actions of everyday life. Each word is selected with care and to a devastating and darkly humorous effect. So Much for that Winter is more playful and experimental. It consists of two novellas, one told in a series of lists and the other in a series of headlines, which charts the inner lives of two very 21st century women grappling with all that life sends their way.

Unit One & Borgen

Watching popular television shows are another great way to try to understand the Danes. The police procedural series Unit One is a good example. A bit like the Law and Order franchise, Unit One follows the members of an elite mobile task force that travels to different locations in Denmark to help the local police solve crimes. While definitely fiction, it is an interesting way to compare and contrast different cultural attitudes towards crime and punishment. It is also fun to watch Mads Mikkelsen, of Hannibal fame, in a very early and very different role. Borgen is another series that is helpful for trying to understand the Danes, this time in the political arena. Borgen is the fictional story of Birgitte Nyborg, the first female prime minister of Denmark, who has to learn the art of wielding power in a way that will benefit the greater good while, hopefully, doing the least harm. This series is also concerned with the press and how the news gets reported and spun to suit various interests. Even if you aren’t a big fan of political drama, there are plenty of personal and family machinations to keep you hooked.

So are the Danes the happiest people on earth? As with all interesting questions the answer is a bit complicated. Best to come to your own conclusion after checking out all of the great material here at the library.