School is Coming

I’m hoping somebody can tell me where the summer went. Between visits from family, the Summer Reading crush, Eclipse excitement and (SURPRISE!) two weeks of Jury Duty, the summer has been a whirlwind and a half. With kids out of school looking for entertainment and excited to do some pleasure reading this is my favorite season in the Library. It is also by far the most exhausting.

So while it is bittersweet to see all of our young patrons head back to school this week, I will confess that I am looking forward to the structured schedule of the school year. It also happens that a lot of books I love are steeped in the petty grievances and serious identity crises that come with starting at a new school. Here are a few of my favorites:

25701463Whitney Gardner’s You’re Welcome, Universe centers on a young woman named Julia. Julia is deaf, and has always been surrounded by the deaf community: her best friend is deaf, as are both of her parents, and she attends a high school for the deaf. When Julia is betrayed by a friend, however, she is expelled from her school and faces the daunting task of attending a public school where the vast majority of students and teachers struggle to communicate with her, where she has to use a (really annoying) translator, and where no one knows her or seems terribly interested in getting to know her.

But Julia has even bigger problems. A budding graffiti artist, Julia is chagrined to find that another painter is changing her works, adding to them but also improving upon them. Julia feels humiliated and violated by this challenge to her art and sets out to best this mysterious new tagger all while navigating her new school, making new friends, and confronting old ones. Gardner does something very clever to help the reader understand Julia’s communication frustrations. When people try to talk to her and she struggles to read their lips, dialog will have some words missing, replaced with “——-.” This decision ingeniously drops the reader into Julia’s shoes, forced to decipher meaning based on surrounding context.

y648Like Julia, Riley Cavanaugh, the narrator of Jeff Garvin’s Symptoms of Being Human, has a lot going on. Starting at a new high school is bad enough for Riley who is already prone to anxiety attacks. But on top of that are the expectations of Riley’s father who is running for reelection in a hotly contested congressional race. Between the pressure to make friends, blend in, “act normal” and not screw up, it’s no wonder Riley is feeling stressed. But Riley is also dealing with something else – a secret that only Riley’s therapist knows. Riley identifies as gender fluid. A far-too-simple explanation would be that sometimes Riley wakes up feeling male, and sometimes Riley wakes up feeling female. But as Riley says “…it’s not that simple. The world isn’t binary. Everything isn’t black or white, yes or no. Sometimes it’s not a switch, it’s a dial. And it’s not even a dial you can get your hands on; it turns without your permission or approval.

To try to cope, Riley starts a blog and is shocked when posts start going viral. Riley begins to settle in, make a few friends, discover a potential romantic interest, and find some respite from all of life’s external pressure. But good things never last. A blog commenter seems to have uncovered Riley’s identity and is threatening to out Riley. Now Riley must decide whether to shutter the blog and betray those who have come to depend on Riley’s posts or to stand proud and risk the judgment of friends and family as well as possibly ruining Riley’s father’s political career.

30256109In American Street, by Ibi Zoboi, Fabiola Toussaint is a young Haitian immigrant who lands in Detroit ready to embrace the American dream. From the start, however, things do not go as planned. Her mother, who was supposed to accompany her, is detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in New Jersey and Fabiola arrives alone, meeting her aunt and cousins for the first time. American culture and expectations to assimilate immediately overwhelm Fabiola, but her resilience and determination ensure that this is not a derivative fish-out-of-water story.

Fabiola’s fierce cousins, known as the three Bees (brains, brawn and beauty), are respected and feared affording her a measure of protection in the neighborhood while also helping her find her place in school. Fab quickly begins to settle in, but is torn between her desire to conform and her devotion to her Haitian identity. She also begins to realize that her aunt and cousins might be involved in some unsavory dealings and that in order to help her mother, she may need to betray the family that welcomed her in Detroit. Though her mother is far away Fab is never alone. All around Detroit Fab sees lwas, Vodou spirits, who help guide her and warn her of impending danger. These visions give American Street a surreal mysticism that edges towards magic realism while also lending authenticity and depth to Fabiola’s immigrant experience.

One of the reasons I love YA fiction is the way its talented writers impart empathy in their work. I’m fortunate to have decent hearing, I’m not an immigrant, and until I read the Symptoms of Being Human my understanding of gender fluidity was rudimentary at best. All three of these works do a masterful job of weaving diverse perspectives into their work, helping the reader to understand the lives of others without overpowering their works’ compelling narratives.

deadlyAnd now for something completely different! In the ongoing series, Deadly Class, Marcus is a homeless teenager simply trying to survive. Sure he has some demons in his past and the police would like to speak with him, but otherwise he seems like a decent guy.  A new world is opened to him when he is invited to attend King’s Dominion High School for the Deadly Arts, a school dedicated to training young assassins. Suddenly Marcus finds himself thrust into a world of precocious young killers, the children of gang leaders, mob bosses, drug kingpins, and genocidal dictators. Marcus must learn to carefully navigate the halls of this school unsure of who to trust because he is certain that if he can survive he can take revenge on the people who destroyed his own family.  This beautifully illustrated comic is profane, thrilling, hilarious, and incredibly difficult to put down.  

Spot-Lit for September 2017

Spot-Lit

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 2017 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction.

Intergalactic Fantastic

If I heard music beamed to earth by an alien civilization, my first thought would be to whip out my phone and try to look it up on iTunes. Actually, my first thought would be ‘I really need a change of underwear.’ Also, I think if there is intelligent life in the universe and they’re driving along enjoying the cosmos, when they see Earth they’d hit the door lock mechanism and beat feet on out of there.

In Ryan Gebhart’s Of Jenny and the Aliens, the people of Earth have sent messages into outer space to see if anything would answer back. Ten years later, something does. (Seems about right. Takes a dude about ten years to text me back.) Derek is a high school senior living with his single mother. On the night the alien message, in the form of music, is heard on Earth, Derek goes to a body painting party to celebrate because hey, what else are you going to do when you hear music from another world? You go to a party, get blasted on booze and whatever weed is floating around and hope someone there is drunk or stoned enough to take you home.

At the party, there’s talk going around that the aliens might invade and everyone’s imagining alien enslavement. Except for Derek. He doesn’t give a toss because Jenny, a girl he’s had a crush on for years, is at the party. And walking around topless. I’m not talking strutting about in a bra. She’s in full skin mode and poor Derek, being a 17-year-old boy, has no idea how to not openly gawk at her. She’s talking to him, paying attention to him when he thought she didn’t even know who he was.

Short story long, they walk to her house where she puts on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Derek loses his virginity to her. Derek’s immediately in love and starts imagining their life together. After she falls asleep, he walks home deciding to stop by a local river. Derek lies down on the riverbank and looks into the sky but something else catches his attention. There’s someone on a tiny island hiding behind a tree. He sees a hand with horrifically long fingers splayed out against the tree trunk. And then he sees a baby deer and he thinks he’s still just a little drunk and makes his way home.

When he gets home it’s five in the morning and his mom is still awake. She’s glued to the TV where there’s a breaking news alert that NASA discovered a link in the alien music. It’s a video. It shows a planet that is remarkably like Earth but a little bigger. The camera pans to show strange animals as big as elephants grazing in a cornfield. They’re a cross between dinosaurs and something with feathers. The video shows a run down ranch house. The camera spots someone (something?) on the porch. It’s a small being with grey skin with mottled patches of color everywhere. It has large eyes and two slits in its face where a nose would be. It appears to struggle to speak. It says it enjoyed the music we sent out and hoped Earth liked the music he sent back. But God oh God, it has rows and rows of sharp shark-like teeth. Why so many nightmare teeth?

After seeing the alien, the world goes into chaotic survival mode. Everyone heads to the grocery store to stock up on supplies, thinking that at any moment flying saucers are going to drop from the sky and start in on the anal probing Olympics. I think my first instinct would be a healthy spike of fear but hey, at least the music they shared with us wasn’t Kanye West. I think that right there would be cause for an invasion.

Derek isn’t worried about the possible alien invasion because he just lost his virginity and is in love. He’s thinking Jenny might be in love with him too. But there’s something a little broken about her. Last summer her brother, a Navy SEAL, was killed on a mission in Raya. She and Derek become almost inseparable for two weeks. He takes her to the river after telling her about the strange noises and long fingers he’d seen by the trees. He tells her to get her camera out and start taking pictures. He swims across the river and is cracked on the head by the alien he saw a few nights ago.

When he comes to, Jenny is long gone and he’s sitting next to an alien smoking a joint. The alien has on jeans, a sports jacket and an orange turtleneck. He’s short, maybe 4 feet tall. They begin a halting conversation about sports and life back on his planet. The alien’s name is Karo. Lights and sirens are beginning to appear and Karo leaves. Jenny went to the police saying Derek had been assaulted. She captured a good picture of the alien. Derek says he’s fine, just tried to do something stupid like swim across in frigid waters to the small island.

In addition to the alien situation, all is not well in Love Land. Jenny is moody and isn’t as into the monogamous lifestyle that Derek prefers. In fact, she’s messing about with one of his best friends. Heartbroken, Derek wants a way to win her back. There’s a credible rumor that America is about to send 200,000 troops into Raya and it will likely be an all out war. Jenny makes an impossible promise to him. If he can stop the war in Raya, she’ll be his girlfriend. So what does Derek decide to do? He decides to try to get the aliens to help him stop the war so Jenny will be his. I’ve done some truly stupid things to get someone to like me (remember making a crush a mix-tape of your favorite songs?) but Derek is about to go over the top.

Of Jenny and the Aliens is told in a heartbreaking voice of first love. Yeah there are aliens in it, but at its core the novel is about love and the seemingly ridiculous lengths humans go to keep it. If you don’t have PTSD about your first teenage love (I still have fond nightmares about mine), grab this book and listen to the wisdom sung by the universe. Or whatever.

Heartwood 7:4 – Out of the Line of Fire by Mark Henshaw

Out of the Line of Fire is a book about a brilliant young philosophy scholar named Wolfgang Shönborn and his father, mother, and sister Elena. The book is structured as a sort of sandwich – the opening and closing sections are told by the unnamed narrator who meets Wolfi when they are both students in Heidelberg. The long middle section is compiled from a package of miscellaneous documents and photographs that Wolfi mailed to the narrator from Berlin, over a year after Wolfi disappeared from Heidelberg. This parting of the friends was an anxious one as the narrator did not get a chance to say goodbye before his own return home to Australia.

This is a novel that has everything: interesting characters along with their individual development and entanglements; a compelling plot with occasional jaw-dropping revelations; and a style that combines lyrical descriptive writing, crisp believable dialogue, and experimental episodes (such as an attempt to philosophically analyze a porn clip, and the consideration of the text that appears on a piece of newspaper Wolfi had used to wrap a photograph he’d sent in the package).

Henshaw had me in the early pages when the topic of Wolfi’s Ph.D. is revealed to be “the metonymic perception of reality.” There are quite a few philosophical tidbits in the book, including lucid passages regarding Kant as he grappled with phenomena, our sensory understanding of the world, and his notion of the noumena. And we hear how Husserl and his followers turned the phenomenology of Kant and Hume on its head. Wolfi mentions that when his father was young, Wittgenstein would come to the house to visit with Wolfi’s grandfather, and one senses that he was an important influence on his overbearing father (a father who pushes Wolfi at a young age to question how he knows anything about what he thinks he knows, and spurs in his son such a manic, sustained bout of studying that it results in a nervous breakdown). Beyond this, the direct mentions of philosophy are fairly rare. Surely the most unexpected is when Wolfi gives a very attentive and beautiful account of his first sexual experience (with a prostitute – an arrangement initiated by his grandmother) and, remarkably, describes how it seemed to him to physically embody Hegel’s dialectic.

The references aren’t only philosophical. The narrator is studying literature, and there are allusions to writers such as Kafka, Handke, Hölderlin, Pirandello, Simenon, and Camus. Indeed, the book, opens – audaciously enough – with the same words Calvino uses at the start of his book, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. The scenes beginning with the one in which Wolfi becomes aware of his sister’s blossoming nubility and her existence as an individual being, brought strongly to my mind the intimate scenes involving Ulrich and his sister in Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, a book mentioned in passing earlier in the narrative. (Incidentally, looking downstream from the original 1988 publication date of Henshaw’s book, the episodic emphasis on cinema, Citizen Kane, and the inclusion of an interview in the text made me think a little of Dana Spiotta’s novels – particularly her latest, Innocents and Others).

Even as Henshaw weaves in these references to other thinkers and writers, he never forgets that his main purpose is to tell a story, and he does so marvelously. He’s clearly interested in how fiction and philosophy both struggle to present a world free of misunderstanding and ambiguity. And it may be for both philosophy and fiction, or at least for the book under consideration here, that so much of the reader’s pleasure comes from dawning realizations, where earlier conceptions are redefined and attain clarity – even if only to be upended again by subsequent revelations.

It’s difficult to say much more about what happens in the book without giving too much away. It features a strong plot, mostly interesting subplots, quite a bit of mystery and some surprising twists, but the striking developments within the Shönborn family are at its center. If you like stories that are amazingly well-told, that have flawed, intelligent characters, and that veer toward the mythologically tragic, Out of the Line of Fire will not let you down.

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate is a gripping and powerful read. The characters are well-developed and the story is based on historical fact which is fascinating.

Stretching back to the 1920’s, many children were left parentless. The unfortunate consequence of this was that some children became a commodity. The Orphan Train, written by Christina Baker Kline, brought awareness to this sad and secretive time in U.S. history when children were shipped off from their families, often losing contact with their siblings and relatives.

Wingate’s latest novel hones in on one particular orphanage run by Georgia Tann in Memphis, Tennessee. The Tennessee Children’s Home Society operated from 1920 to 1950. While there were real orphans in need of a home, other children in Ms. Tann’s system were not there by choice. Horrible conditions and shameful atrocities were kept secret by powerful people until, under pressure from the victims’ families, the home’s records were finally opened in 1995.

Before We Were Yours parallels the lives of two fictional families separated by time. One stormy night in 1939 a young family living in a shanty boat along the Mississippi river is forever changed. In the present day the story of the prominent Stafford family of Aiken, South Carolina unfolds, merging the past with the present. Inserting facts, Wingate writes a credible and compelling story exposing the pain and heartache of innocent children in the grip of a very influential woman.

In the late 1920’s there was a black market for orphaned children. Georgia Tann’s orphanage was run with the help of individuals in authority. People of status and importance were recipients of Tann’s industry. Families in dire straits were duped into signing papers which allowed Ms. Tann to prosper. This went on for nearly 30 years. Children were taken from their parents and torn apart from their siblings.

Stafford family member Avery is on track to follow in her congressman father’s political footsteps. But a chance encounter during a publicity campaign at a local nursing home turns into something more when a hidden secret unbeknownst to all but her grandmother is revealed. Avery is curious to find answers and meets up with just the right person who will help her unravel the past.

Literary fiction is my favorite but every now and then I enjoy reading a simple well written story. Discovering this obscure bit of history, reading a plausible story, and meeting pleasant characters is why I would recommend this book.

An Alien-less Invasion

I’ll admit it. I am very excited. The first total solar eclipse to span the United States in over 100 years, and we are close enough to the path to get a very good show. We’ve been getting lots of questions about the eclipse, about eclipse glasses, and about the best places to view the eclipse, so I know eclipse-mania (eclipsanity?) is not restricted to my nerdy circle of friends. And I am delighted to have a chance to further build the hype among our young patrons – I’ll be presenting a special eclipse themed storytime this Thursday.

I’ve been obsessed with space for as long as I can remember. I grew up on a steady diet of Star Trek and Star Wars books, before graduating to more “sophisticated” fare like Starship Troopers, The Forever War and, of course, Ender’s Game. With the coming eclipse, I’ve been thinking about these books and even revisiting a few of my favorites. And yet what I keep coming back to is the best book about an alien invasion that I’ve ever read, even though there aren’t any actual aliens in the book.

Grasshopper-Jungle-Andrew-Smith

Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle is the history of an apocalyptic pandemic as recorded by Austin Szerba, a wry, self-aware teenager dealing with fairly typical high school problems: school, family, local jerks, and his complicated relationship with his girlfriend, Shann. He’s also facing some issues that are a little messier – his brother is off fighting in Afghanistan and he is not sure exactly how to define his feelings for Robbie, his gay best friend.  

Of course none of this is too far outside the realm of many other great coming of age stories. That’s because I haven’t yet talked about the plague that Austin and Robbie have accidentally unleashed. This is not the kind of virus that “simply” kills it’s host. Instead it causes them to molt their human shell, turning into giant praying mantis-like super-soldiers who are only interested in two things: eating and ….well, you can probably guess the other thing. As this beastly infection spreads at an alarming speed, either infecting or devouring anyone in its path, Austin, Robbie and Shann embark on a hilarious, perilous, and awkward journey towards both self-discovery and an understanding of the history and consequences of the merciless killer they’ve unleashed.

Smith is an incredible writer with a precise and masterful feel for the uncertainty and self-consciousness of teenage life. He also understands the tedious boredom of the daily adolescent routine and the bursts of frenzied excitement that punctuate these years. As with all his books, the quirky strangeness of his writing captivates from page one but it has extra vitality when delivered in the voice of Austin Szerba. Austin is obsessed with creating historical records even though he understands the futility of doing so, as he explains in the book’s opening:

I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.

We believe it will prevent us from doing stupid things in the future.

But even though we dutifully archived elaborate records of everything we’ve ever done, we also managed to keep on doing dumber and dumber shit.

This is my history.

There are things in here: babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty.

Just like it’s always been.

In a sense, the entire book is a narrative journey through Austin’s meticulous records. Despite the many engaging storylines what truly shines is Austin’s frustrated devotion to his town and its many residents, warts and all. His obsession with unwinding their histories may be laced with acerbic wit, but he is telling these stories because he cares desperately.

Maybe my ranting and raving praise doesn’t make you curious to read this book. Maybe you’re still wondering why I am talking about a book published in 2014. Maybe, just maybe, I can sweeten the pot. Edgar Wright, geek director extraordinaire, is in the process of developing the film adaptation of Grasshopper Jungle, which I am waiting for with far less patience than I am for this damn eclipse. And if that’s not enough, come on people! Giant, horny, man-eating praying mantises!

Award-Winning Reads

How is it already August?! In case you’re just joining us, there’s still about a month left to complete 7 of the 8 adult summer reading challenges. If you turn in your entry by August 31st you have a chance of winning a prize. Not enough incentive? How about getting to read 7-8 rad books you may never have read if left to your own devices? Yeah, now we’re talking!

So let’s dip into another reading challenge, shall we? This time I’m focusing on National Book Award winners. The National Book Award is an American literary prize given by the National Book Foundation. The 2017 winners won’t be announced until November, so let’s focus on last year’s winners. The overarching themes in the 2016 winners–racism, civil rights, political violence, and immigration–are timely reminders of how far we’ve come as a society and how very, very far we still have to go.

2016 Fiction Winner:
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Summary: Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted. Their first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom. Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey — hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day.

2016 Nonfiction Winner:
Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
Summary: Americans like to insist that we are living in a postracial, color-blind society. In fact, racist thought is alive and well; it has simply become more sophisticated and more insidious. And as award-winning historian Ibram X. Kendi argues, racist ideas in this country have a long and lingering history, one in which nearly every great American thinker is complicit. In this deeply researched and fast-moving narrative, Kendi chronicles the entire story of anti-Black racist ideas and their staggering power over the course of American history. Stamped from the Beginning uses the lives of five major American intellectuals to offer a window into the contentious debates between assimilationists and segregationists and between racists and antiracists. From Puritan minister Cotton Mather to Thomas Jefferson, from fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to brilliant scholar W. E. B. Du Bois to legendary anti-prison activist Angela Davis, Kendi shows how and why some of our leading proslavery and pro-civil rights thinkers have challenged or helped cement racist ideas in America. As Kendi provocatively illustrates, racist thinking did not arise from ignorance or hatred. Racist ideas were created and popularized in an effort to defend deeply entrenched discriminatory policies and to rationalize the nation’s racial inequities in everything from wealth to health. While racist ideas are easily produced and easily consumed, they can also be discredited. In shedding much-needed light on the murky history of racist ideas, Stamped from the Beginning offers us the tools we need to expose them–and in the process gives us reason to hope.

2016 Poetry Winner:
The Performance of Becoming Human by Daniel Borzutzky
Summary: Daniel Borzutzky’s new collection of poetry draws hemispheric connections between the US and Latin America, specifically touching upon issues relating to border and immigration policies, economic disparity, political violence, and the disturbing rhetoric of capitalism and bureaucracies. To become human is to navigate these borders including those of institutions, the realities of over- and under-development, and the economies of privatization in which humans endure state-sanctioned and systemic abuses.

2016 Young People’s Literature Winner:
March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
Summary: Welcome to the stunning conclusion of the award-winning and best-selling March trilogy. Congressman John Lewis, an American icon and one of the key figures of the civil rights movement, joins co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell to bring the lessons of history to vivid life for a new generation, urgently relevant for today’s world.

Already read these, or looking for more options? Check out the complete list of past winners at the Award’s website.

Hopefully this series of blog posts is helping you achieve your summer reading goals. For me, it’s definitely making my TBR grow dangerously tall–but who ever said that was a bad thing?