The Great Forgetting

How do you describe a book that is best not described? That is the conundrum I’ve found myself in when trying to talk about The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa. It is a beautiful, haunting, touching and disturbing read very much grounded in the real. When you describe the plot, however, it sounds like a fantastical and dystopian work with possible tendencies toward heavy handed allegory. I was hesitant to pick it up myself after reading the synopsis, but I’ve absolutely adored other books by the author (The Diving Pool is a standout) and knew I had to give it a try. I was well rewarded and I think you will be as well.

Now let’s get that problematic plot out of the way.

The unnamed protagonist, a young novelist who recently lost both her parents and now lives alone, resides on a very peculiar, also unnamed, island. The residents wake up every so often and find they have forgotten that a specific object (a hat, a bird, a rose) exists. The objects then cease to exist in the world. While this is definitely disturbing at first, the residents come to accept it and eventually forget the object ever existed in the first place.

A very few people, however, are not subject to this forgetting. It is the job of the Memory Police, a sinister lot in well pressed uniforms, to find these people and take them out of the community; to where exactly, no one knows. The young novelist discovers that her editor is one of those who can remember and with the help of an older neighbor, decides to hide him in a basement compartment of her house.

So yeah, not your standard storyline.

Don’t let the fantastical nature of the plot scare you off though. The relationships between the characters, and Ogawa’s plain but haunting use of language, are the real stars here. Their thoughts and feelings are described in such a straight forward and seemingly plausible way, that you too come to accept the seemingly impossible.

As with most of the author’s work, however, there is a sense of unseen menace behind the plain language. It is hard to describe, but the lead character captured my own feelings about this novel, while describing her own work:

I myself wasn’t sure what would happen next. The story seemed simple and pleasant enough, but I had a feeling it might take a frightening turn.

So, if you don’t mind a frightening turn or two, and appreciate really great writing, definitely check out The Memory Police.

Crew Expendable

Ah, the summer of 1979. If you were more than a gleam in your Mother’s eye, you might have noted the signing of the SALT II agreement, celebrated the Sonics wining the NBA championship or listened to Michael Jackson’s newly released album Off the Wall. If you were to ask my 11-year-old self what the most important event was, however, it would definitely be getting to see my first R-rated movie. After much cajoling on my part and vetting of the film by my parents, I was allowed to attend a viewing, with an appropriate adult of course, of the movie Alien. I still may not have fully recovered.

If you have seen the film (and if you haven’t: a. seriously?? and b. spoilers ahead) you know that there are many things that could leave an impression on a developing mind. The alien itself is a literal nightmare, its method of reproduction is grotesque to say the least, and a decapitated android admiring a ‘perfect organism’ while covered in milk/blood has a tendency to be disturbing. But no, my fevered preadolescent mind began quaking in fear because of…… air ducts.

Ridley Scott created a set so convincing that I felt I was trapped along with the crew in a cramped, grittily industrial and incredibly dark spaceship. When the camera slowly panned across a hallway, I was filled with dread even before the creature appeared. The final straw for me was when Dallas, played by Seattle’s own Tom Skerritt, crawled through the air ducts in a doomed effort to flush the alien into an airlock. As the device that is tracking him started to register two blips, I began slumping down in my seat getting ready to cover my eyes.

If you too are terrified by effective film set design, or just want to see a great movie again, now is a good time to check out Alien. Not only do we have the DVD at the library, but in honor of the 40th anniversary of the film’s release in the summer of 1979, it is being shown in actual theaters again and will be coming to Everett in October.

Now, if you would like to delve into the film a little deeper and learn all about its complicated creation story, the library has just purchased The Making of Alien by J.W. Rinzler. The book is an Alien aficionado’s dream containing new interviews with Ridley Scott and many others involved in the production, rarely seen photographs, and enough concept art of the Alien from H.R Giger to give you nightmares for weeks.

The story of the film’s journey from concept to creation is actually quite fascinating in its own right. It serves as an intriguing reflection of the shifting mores regarding gender (a female hero??), the creeping influence of commercialization (damn company!), and fear of automation (I can’t lie to you about your chances, but you have my sympathy). Either that, or I’ve seen the film way to many times.

Also, just let the cat go. Come on!

To the Moon

As you have no doubt heard by now, July 20th is the 50th anniversary of human beings landing on the moon. One of the side benefits of all the hype is the fact that the library now has a slew of new books on this important technological achievement, the moon in general, and other quirky space exploration topics. There are so many new books, in fact, that it might just be hard to sift through them all. Never fear, your trusty librarian is here to guide you through all of the goodies.

So whether you want to revel in a technological marvel, examine the geopolitical forces that made the launch possible, examine firsthand astronaut’s experiences, find out about the moon itself or contemplate future explorations, we have a book to pique your interest. There is also a little something for the cynic (great, we have another pristine resource to exploit) or the grump (why isn’t there a freakin’ moon base after 50 years!) to enjoy as well.

The Mission

There is no denying that the mission to the moon was an impressive technological achievement. But it certainly wasn’t easy. Or safe. Or guaranteed to succeed. Learn all the harrowing details in these tense and fascinating books documenting the mission and those who succeeded in pulling it off.

The Politics

While the astronauts operated in a vacuum, the Apollo missions definitely did not. Large amounts of political intrigue, historical factors, and taxpayer funding was required to get those rockets off the ground. Check out these books to get some historical perspective on the Apollo missions and gain some insight into the controversies surrounding the program to this day.

The People

What does it take to walk on the moon? What is it like to be blasted into space? What does it feel like to live out the rest of your life tethered to the earth and considered a hero? Find out with these books from the astronaut’s perspective.

For the Graphically Inclined

The moon landing provided some stunning visuals, so it is only appropriate to have this reflected in books celebrating the anniversary. Also included are two excellent graphic novels that depict the Apollo program and the historical landing.

A Different Take

While traditional historical narratives are great, I always appreciate a book that tries to take a different approach to a well-known topic. These two books examine the moon landing by focusing on a few, or one, key object and telling the story from there.

The Moon Itself

We often take our closest celestial neighbor for granted, but the moon is actually more important and interesting than you might imagine. These books examine the moon from a cultural and scientific perspective, revealing it to be much more than a simple lifeless chunk of rock.

What Next?

Sure landing on the moon 50 years ago was an impressive feat, but what happens now? Will we revisit the moon and expand outward into the solar system? Should we? Check out these books to speculate about the future of the moon, humanity, and space travel.

So come on into the library and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing by checking out a book or two. The future is yours!

In a Lonely Place

This is the city. Late 1940s Los Angeles. The war has been won and the economy is booming, but something sinister is prowling the foggy streets of the city at night. Women are being murdered and their lifeless bodies abandoned in seemingly random locations. The police are unable to find a pattern or a motive. Panic and fear permeates the streets.

If this sounds like a standard noir plot from the likes of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett you would be right. The difference here is that this tale is written by the little known, but much regarded Dorothy B. Hughes. In a Lonely Place, written in 1947 and reissued here in the NYRB Classics series, is as entertaining as it is subversive. Hughes works within the noir genre to expose its own dark underbelly: the genre’s disturbing attitude towards its female characters.

Most of the novel is from the perspective of the killer, Dix Steele (a noir name if there ever was one). Recently back from the war and living off a stipend from a rich uncle, he wanders the city streets claiming he is a writer of detective fiction. Underneath this suave facade, he feels entitled to an easy life and is enraged by those he sees denying him, primarily women. There is Laurel Gray, the cynical aspiring actress who lives next door and Sylvia Nicolai, the wife of his best friend during the war. Sylvia is married to Dix’s old war buddy, who just happens to be a detective investigating the recent string of murders plaguing the city.

Hughes takes these classic noir characters (the femme fatale, the good girl, the detective, and the killer) and uses them to play with the readers expectations. The result is a novel grounded in, but not straightjacketed by, the genre. I won’t give any more of the details away. Just know that this is not a ‘standard’ noir tale in execution or resolution.

Do be warned though, it can take a bit of time to adjust to this excellent work. The prose can be dense and heated, the slang sometimes obtuse, and it is grounded in the mores of its time. That being said, this slim novel is well worth your limited reading time.

Back in My Day…

Historical reenactment has always seemed a weird yet compelling activity to me. Sure it is easy to laugh at grown adults in period costumes trying to recreate a bygone era, but you have to admire the commitment. As a person of many compulsions myself (yes, there is a large schematic of the USS Voyager hanging above the fireplace at home), I definitely understand the desire to live out the obsession, if only for a brief time.

But there is a danger: Do reenactors want to know what it was like to live in an era or do they actually want to go back to that time? Worse yet, do they think of that era as a golden age that needs to be applied to today’s world? It is this possibility for toxic nostalgia that lies at the heart of Sarah Moss’ excellent, haunting and ‘disturbing in a good way’ novel, Ghost Wall.

Sylvie finds herself in a remote location in Northern England with her enthusiastic and domineering father, Bill, and her compliant mother, Alison. They are there for a two-week ‘holiday’ reenacting the lives of Iron Age Britons. As you might guess, wearing an itchy tunic, foraging for berries, and eating cold porridge is hardly a dream come true for a young adult. Luckily, they are joined by a group from the local university (a professor of ‘experimental archaeology’ and three students) who provide an outlet for Sylvie to escape her family from time to time.

The author slowly reveals that Bill’s relationship with his wife and daughter is clearly abusive. Worse still, his passion for recreating the lives of Iron Age Britons extends to a rather disturbing ritual: human sacrifice, complete with the disposal of the body in a local bog. Sylvie, due to years of living in an abusive family, has a tendency to accept her father’s bullying behavior even when it becomes extreme. After befriending Molly, one of the students, she begins to see that there is another way of living.

While the plot of this short novel is excellent, it’s really the author’s mesmerizing use of language that stands out. To get a feel for it, a lengthy quote is in order:

Of course, that was the whole point of the re-enactment, that we ourselves became the ghosts, learning to walk the land as they walked it two thousand years ago, to tend our fire as they tended theirs and hope that some of their thoughts, their way of understanding the world, would follow the dance of muscle and bone. To do it properly, I thought, we would almost have to absent ourselves from ourselves, leaving our actions, our re-enactions, to those no longer there. Who are the ghosts again, us or our dead? Maybe they imagined us first, maybe we were conjured out of the deep past by other minds.

There are many such elegant and thought provoking passages in Ghostwall, making it a excellent use of your limited reading time. No period costume required.

Old Dogs and New Tricks

Graphic novels have always been a tough sell for me. It’s not that I think the format is less worthy than novels; it’s just the simple fact that my aging brain has trouble figuring out what’s going on. I find myself puzzling over which panel I’m supposed to look at next, which seriously breaks the spell of the narrative. Luckily though, I have found a genre of graphic novel that works for me: the memoir. It is probably the linear storytelling, plus the fact that they are often text heavy, that makes it easier for me to digest and understand. I’ve recently read two excellent examples that I would highly recommend. Both for those who are, like me, Graphic Novel ‘challenged’ as well as the aficionado.

On the surface, Everything is Teeth by Evie Wyld is about the author’s recollections of her summer visits with relatives in Australia during her childhood. Lurking underneath, however, is Wyld’s obsession with sharks; a trait she first developed in Australia and brought back to her family home in England. Her unending fascination with their power, ruthlessness and seeming indifference, blend with her first realizations concerning family relationships and her place in the world. The illustrator, Joe Sumner, effectively conveys the shark’s influence on the author’s feelings with his illustrations. The humans are drawn in a simple and straightforward way. The sharks, however, are drawn in an almost photorealistic style that makes them jump off the page, conveying their importance and danger. Wyld is an excellent novelist, All the Birds Singing is superb, and her hypnotic and disturbing use of language is on display here with every panel.

Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home by Nora Krug is also a memoir about understanding your past, but in this case, it concerns family history and national identity. Far removed from the wartime generation of her grandparents, Krug grew up in 1970s West Germany. While developing a love for her country and a fond sense of Germanness, she always felt there was a piece of the puzzle missing. Mainly, her family’s wartime past. After moving to New York and marrying a man of Jewish heritage, this need to know becomes a burning issue and she begins to investigate. In addition to writing the story, Krug also illustrates this work. The result looks very much like a family scrapbook, complete with photos and relevant documents. While this graphic memoir definitely deals with some heavy issues, Krug also peppers it throughout with interesting and entertaining digressions on what she misses from the land of her birth. Surprising examples include mushroom picking, hot water bottles and bandages.

So unlike an old dog, it seems I have learned a new trick: an appreciation for graphic novels.

A Quiet Apocalypse

Books and movies depicting the apocalypse have a tendency to go big. I understand that the end of civilization would be a pretty big deal, but does it always have to be so dramatic? Be it zombies, plague, natural disaster or aliens, ‘the end’ comes storming onto the scene and everyone runs screaming. Because of this, I’ve always appreciated works that depict the world’s upcoming doom as just one event among many in a character’s everyday life. It just seems more realistic to me. Admittedly, wanting realism when it comes to the apocalypse might seem a bit odd. But hey, I am what I am.

In Severance by Ling Ma, the apocalypse is a quiet one. It takes the form of Shen Fever, which is a highly contagious disease, turning people into zombies but not the bloodthirsty brain eating kind. Instead, Shen Fever is a ‘disease of remembering’ that renders its victims harmless, but doomed to repeat the routines they performed in life, until they slowly waste away. But even this catastrophic event is not the center of the book. Instead, it is the life of the protagonist Candace that is of most importance.

Alternating between Candace’s life before and after the pandemic, you come to know her as a quirky twenty-something coming to terms with a world that is drastically altered, yet strangely the same. Before the pandemic, she works for a Manhattan book publisher in the ‘specialty Bibles division’ and lives with her on again off again boyfriend Jonathan in Brooklyn. Both have vague artistic ambitions, but Candace has resigned herself to a more mundane job to pay the bills. Once Shen Fever hits the city, and the number of people in her office slowly starts to decline, she actually has a chance to indulge her creative side. She founds the blog NY Ghost and captures haunting images of an empty New York City for those who have fled.

Once things really start to fall apart, with food and the internet in short supply, she is forced to leave and try to find a new way of living. She eventually comes across a group of survivors led by Bob, a former IT specialist with some rather odd ideas about the new world and his role in it. The group continues in search of a safe place, that only Bob knows about. On the way, they scavenge homes for supplies, filled with victims of the fever who are continually performing the same routine tasks they did when healthy.

Severance is an odd but rewarding read. By focusing on character rather than catastrophe, it produces a convincing portrait of a young woman trying to make sense of a possibly dying world and her place in it.