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.

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.

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.

Spot-Lit for March 2017

Spot-Lit

These titles – from established, new, and emerging authors – are some of the most anticipated new novels and story collections 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.

Heartwood 7:2 – Target in the Night by Ricardo Piglia

target-in-the-nightTarget in the Night by feted, recently deceased, Argentinian author Ricardo Piglia is a beautifully constructed novel featuring a number of interrelated stories, distinctly individualized characters, and stylish storytelling.

On its surface we have the murder of Tony Durán who came from the U.S. to a provincial town outside of Buenos Aires with lots of cash and a connection to the twin Belladona sisters. Attempting to solve Durán’s murder is Croce, the quixotic, Holmesian detective who has a long history of butting heads with local prosecutor Cueto.

The murder involved a knifing and the apparent use of a defunct dumbwaiter to lower down cash from the victim’s hotel room. The latter may also have provided the means of escape for a small person. Indeed the chief suspect is a Japanese jockey by the name of Yoshio, and his alleged act is being called a crime of passion. Other suspects include various members of the Belladona family, and a different jockey, who may have been paid to make the hit as he was in need of cash to buy a beloved, injured horse.

Woven into the story are scenes at the racetrack, the Belladona brothers and their fortress-like factory for cutting-edge automotive prototypes on the outskirts of town, a reporter (Renzi) from the city who has come to report on the murder, and a slowly unfolding history of the town and life on the Argentinian pampas that brings to mind García Márquez’s mythical town of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The Belladona family are prominent citizens in the community but are described as being currently at war with each other. We learn of their family history in ways that are fascinating and add layers of intrigue. For example, Renzi has a long talk with the twin, Sophia (eventually leading to intimacy), which unfolds episodically throughout the novel. And Renzi discovers more details about the Belladonna family with the help of the town’s efficient archivist, Rosa, revealing a family schism and the attempt to appropriate the Belladona factory and surrounding lands through a corporate takeover.

In addition to all this, Piglia’s various characters have peculiar interests that include a fascination with language and syntax, dreams and the work of Carl Jung, literature and philosophy, quasi-mysticism, rationalism, madness, perception and the idée fixe. Target in the Night is a wonderful amalgam of detective story and classical tragedy told in voices that vary from Chandler to Pynchon to Bolaño. Readers in need of cleanly wrapped up narratives should probably look elsewhere, but for those who are open to ambiguity and enjoy finely realized characters, myriad subject matter, and punchy yet graceful writing — definitely give this book a look.

__________

Blanco nocturno (Target in the Night) was awarded the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize in 2011. For more about the author see the Piglia Dossier in the first issue of the new journal, Latin American Literature Today.

The Female of the Species

This is how I kill someone.

I learn his habits, I know his schedule. It is not difficult. His life consists of quick stops at the dollar store for the bare minimum of things required to keep his ragged cycle going, his hat pulled down over his eyes so as not to be recognized.

But he is. It’s a small town.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for opening lines. The above quote, which opens Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species, is narrated by Alex Craft, a teenager in a small Ohio town hit hard by recession and harder by opioid addiction. The soon-to-be-victim that Alex is stalking is the man who abducted, raped and killed her older sister three years prior. Due to a lack of evidence, police cannot make charges stick. Thus, the killer walks free until Alex takes ferocious justice into her own hands.

femalespeciesAmazingly, in a small town with no secrets, Alex gets away with murder. People are satisfied that a vigilante “made things right,” and the killer’s death evolves from recent crime to urban legend. But for Alex, this act of savage violence bears its own costs. Though she feels no guilt, she remains overcome with rage and views herself as deeply damaged. To protect others and herself, Alex withdraws, keeping to herself whenever possible. However, during her senior year of high school two classmates threaten her seclusion. Peekay, the local preacher’s daughter and Jack, the closest thing the town has to a golden child, are both drawn to Alex and determined to bring her into their lives. As Alex begins to care for Peekay and Jack, she feels a fierce need to protect them, bringing her anger back to the surface with explosive and violent effects.

At times, The Female of the Species is deeply upsetting. McGinnis does not shy away from uncomfortable subjects including addiction, sexual assault, rape culture, and the unequal expectations society places on young men and women. McGinnis gives her characters the voice to skewer hypocrisy with devastating precision, as when Alex observes: “But boys will be boys, our favorite phrase that excuses so many things, while the only thing we have for the opposite gender is women, said with disdain and punctuated with an eye roll.”

The Female of the Species rewards readers willing to grapple with these difficult issues by masterfully blending genres. McGinnis seamlessly maintains the intensity of a psychological thriller while incorporating elements of a contemporary coming of age story and flirting with classical tragedy. As the story unfolds, told from the alternating perspectives of Alex, Peekay and Jack, Alex is revealed to be an incredibly complex young woman whose intensity, ferocity and loyalty are equally mesmerizing and terrifying.

Funny Strange or Funny Ha-Ha

I’ve always had a weakness for stories that live at the intersection of funny and weird. Straight up hilarious or bizarre is great in a story, but when you combine the two it produces a strange feeling of unease that I find oddly gratifying. If you have ever laughed at a situation or occurrence while reading a story and simultaneously thought ‘why the heck am I laughing at this’ then you know what I mean. Luckily, I’ve recently read three short story collections that are chock full of stories that fit the bill. Some veer a little more toward the strange and others toward the funny, but many of the stories are smack dab at the rarefied intersection of weird and funny. If you enjoy these types of stories as well, or just want to try something new, the short story collections listed below will definitely be worth your limited reading time.

American Housewife by Helen Ellis

americanhousewifeThis collection definitely brings on the funny as the author sets out to wittily skewer contemporary domestic mores and the traditional roles of women in the 21st century. She does so by taking a seemingly ‘normal’ situation and ramping it up to absurd levels with the story veering off into the truly bizarre: ‘The Wainscoting War’ records the email war between two neighbors as they try to claim the right to decorate their shared hallway with deadly results. ‘Hello! Welcome to Book Club’ is the story of the initiation of a new book club member who begins to realize that the book club wants to control more than just what she reads. ‘My Book is Brought to You by the Good People at Tampax’ is a standout and details an author’s subjugation to her book’s sponsor as it takes over every aspect of her life. While these stories are consistently funny, most head toward strange with pleasing results.

Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh

homesickThe stories in this collection are more somber, but still provide some outstanding tales blending the humorous and the strange. The author has a knack for creating characters that are at once obsessive, slightly neurotic, and definitely odd but still sympathetic. You may just end up chuckling at their life situations in spite of yourself: ‘Bettering Myself’ is the story of an alcoholic teacher at a Catholic school who ensures her employment by fudging her student’s test scores. ‘Malibu’ introduces you to an odd nephew and uncle who spend their days in front of the TV, except to go out to find the perfect place to deposit the uncle’s ashes when he dies. ‘The Weirdos’ details a woman’s breakup, sort of, with her truly bizarre aspiring actor boyfriend who is convinced aliens exist and that the local crows are after him. The emphasis is more on the strange in these stories, but the funny is definitely there as well.

Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein

childrenA near future where technology has taken a disquieting and frighteningly plausible turn is the setting for most of the stories in this work. The author is great at creating a sense of unease, but is also capable of creating a strong sense of sympathy for his characters and their predicaments. While strangeness abounds in this collection, there is definitely a lot humor-but be warned that it is mostly of the dark kind:  ‘Children of the New World’ details an infertile couple’s anxiety at having to delete their virtual children due to a computer virus. ‘The Cartographers’ is the story of a programmer who has developed a program that can beam other people’s memories into his own brain, causing him to not know what is real and what isn’t. ‘Rocket Night’ introduces us to an elementary school where parents gather annually to decide which of their children is least liked and then launch the unfortunate student into space. If you don’t mind your dystopian strangeness mixed with a little dark humor, this is the collection for you.

Enjoy these short story collections and free yourself from having to determine whether they are funny strange or funny ha-ha. Happily they are both.