I Am Speechless!

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Speechless is a clever sitcom driven by brilliant writing and acting. Amazingly, in 2019 it was ABC’s lowest rated show. Filled with a cast of characters viewers can truly care about, perhaps even want to hang out with, its failure leaves me utterly, wait for it, speechless.

At the center of Speechless we find the DiMeo family. Maya (played by Minnie Driver) is a superstar special-needs mom who is constantly on the lookout for the perfect school environment for J.J., her 16-year-old son. J.J.’s cerebral palsy relegates him to an electric wheelchair and requires him to communicate by pointing a laser at a word/letter board. He is intelligent, happy and generally a typical 16-year-old.

At the start of Season 1 the family moves into a new house (something they do every year) and J.J. undertakes his first experience with mainstream high school. Really, all he wants is to experience the same things as most teens. Maya is, shall we say, rather intense in her efforts to get the best of everything for J.J. and most people are somewhat scared of her. But persistence produces results and J.J. soon has a full-time aide, Kenneth, who goes to classes with him, speaks for him and helps him with physical tasks. Kenneth and J.J. soon form a tight bond that is unique in the annals of sitcoms.

The household is rounded out by husband Jimmy, an airport baggage handler who doesn’t really care what anyone thinks of him; Ray, the middle child, a worrier and realist who just wants a girlfriend; and Ray’s younger sister, Dylan, a competitive runner who has little time for nonsense unless it involves pranking Ray. They make up a close-knit family and although the others feel neglected at times, everyone is focused on providing J.J. with whatever he needs.

Prom

One of the show’s main sources of tension is J.J.’s desire for independence versus Maya’s need to orchestrate his life. She has spent 16 years fighting for J.J., trying to make things easier for him. Now in high school he’s asking for opportunities to go to parties and school dances, play sled hockey and go to summer camp. Maya, understandably, has a hard time letting go. But Kenneth recognizes J.J.’s needs and desires and is an excellent advocate, which in turn leads to tension between Maya and Kenneth.

Hockey

Sibling subplots center around Ray’s quest for a girlfriend and Dylan’s insatiable need to win. Another recurring plot point is the family’s general messiness and lack of yard care. J.J. takes a lot of everyone’s energy and little is left for household chores. The DiMeos are fine with this, but neighbors do not always share their enthusiasm. Perhaps my favorite episode is “T-h-a Thanksgiving”. The family is supposed to visit Jimmy’s brother but don’t want to because, well, those relatives are horrible. The brother always humble-brags about his wealth and success; his wife cries at the drop of a hat; her mother performs weird semi-lap dances for J.J.; and their son says a single catch phrase each year and nothing else; So the DiMeos pretend that J.J. is sick and cancel the visit. However, the relatives decide to visit the DiMeos instead. As they continue to plan ways to avoid the unwanted gathering, Maya comes up with a brilliant idea, turning the relatives annoying habits into a game. Every time the wife cries Maya gets a point, when the brother brags Jimmy gets a point, and so on. This is a unique perspective on coping with difficult family interactions.

If you like sharp, clever writing, be sure to check out Speechless. It’s truly a superior and unusual show, well worth the price of admission. And please remember: no helmet, no hockey.

The Good Place

Finally, the ultimate philosophical questions surrounding life and death have been answered. In a sitcom. Called The Good Place.

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The premise is a little difficult to explain without getting into multiple spoilers, but here we go.

There is an afterlife! When people die they either go to the Good Place or the Bad Place, depending on how they behaved while alive. The show focuses on four people who die at roughly the same time and are thrust together in the Good Place in a neighborhood designed by an eternal (or nearly-eternal) being named Michael. Michael is sort of like a god in the neighborhood, able to help people, fix problems and create heavenly things such as frozen yogurt restaurants.

There is a “but”.

But Eleanor (the main character) realizes she doesn’t belong in the Good Place. She was, in fact, a horrible human being while alive. Thus, Eleanor assumes there’s been some sort of clerical error that saved her from eternal punishment. And, wanting to remain in the Good Place, she tries to cover up this mistake. To her credit, Eleanor does try to make up for previous behaviors by studying ethics with Chidi (a professor of ethics while alive), who is her soulmate in the Good Place. But it becomes apparent that covering up her past is not going to be easy.

Other characters include another pair of soulmates, Tahani, a rich socialite while alive, and Jianyu, a silent Taiwanese monk, who live in a fantastic mansion next to Eleanor and Chidi’s tiny, clown-themed house. And let us not forget Janet, a sort of supercomputer in human form, who knows literally everything and is able to fill all the desires of the neighborhood’s inhabitants (such as providing frozen yogurt).

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This is the premise, more or less, at the beginning of the first season. But it’s important to remember one thing about The Good Place: Nothing is what it seems to be. In fact, viewers’ expectations are constantly turned upside down over teakettle. By the end of season 1, the above description is highly inaccurate and the show reboots, so to speak, in an entirely different direction. And this is one of the strengths of the show, its willingness to explore entirely new circumstances, essentially trashing everything that has already occurred. In a way, this aspect of The Good Place is similar to the premise of Groundhog Day, with characters reliving the same or similar situations with different outcomes. This device provides a level of freshness that is seldom found on television.

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Later seasons are impossible to describe without giving away the many twists that make The Good Place such a refreshing show. Suffice to say, a variety of permutations of the original plot find their way into the afterlife, creating much humor along the way.

The fourth and final season of the show is currently airing on network TV, meaning there will only be 50 or so episodes of the show in total. Higher quality often means fewer episodes, which means viewers will have to find other innovative programming. So take advantage of this excellent program while you can. The writing, acting, plot twists and explanations of the afterlife are superlative. As a young British prime minister once said, “Hey, that’s my donut!”

Unhappy Comedies

I’ve noticed a recent trend in sitcoms. Perhaps it’s nothing new, but an extra twist of lime has been added to the mix, metaphorically speaking. Here’s the 411 on the down low: Most of the characters in these comedies are not likable and the overall feeling generated by the shows is discomfort. Please, come with me to THE LAND OF UNHAPPY COMEDIES.

baskets

Our first stop is Bakersfield, CA. After flunking out of a prestigious French clown college, Chip Baskets is determined to fulfill his clowning dream. So, Baskets moves in with his less-than-supportive mother (played somewhat disturbingly by Louie Anderson) and takes a job as a rodeo clown. Chip’s only friend is Martha, an insurance agent who tolerates the poor treatment he heaps on her liberally. His twin brother Dale (mom’s favorite) is another source of irritation in Chip’s demoralizing life. And it’s a comedy! Don’t get me wrong, Baskets is a crazy good television program. It’s just not a happy viewing experience. Did I mention that it’s a comedy?

GettingOn

Moving approximately 135 miles to Long Beach, CA, we come to the Mount Palms Memorial Hospital where the dysfunctional denizens of Getting On help people who are ready to move on to their final reward. Meet head nurse Dawn Forchette, a woman who freely mixes her love life and job, failing miserably at both; nurse Didi Ortley, a compassionate and humane caregiver; Dr. Jenna James, who cares about nothing but her research, often at the patients’ cost; and supervising nurse Patsy De La Serda, a sexually ambiguous emotional wreck who puts a face on unhappiness. What better premise for a comedy? These characters frequently act with disregard for those around them, driven only by their own needs and desires. In Didi we have a reasonable person that most of us can relate to but the others are all toxic. The result is an uncomfortable but hilarious viewing experience.

LastMan

Our journey concludes in Tuscon and other ports of call. Humanity has been wiped out by a virus and Phil Miller is The Last Man On Earth. He travels the North American continent for two years looking for others but finds no one. As he sits in Tuscon contemplating ending it all, other survivors begin to arrive and we soon find out that Phil (who goes by his middle name, Tandy) is a real jerk with few redeeming qualities. After finding out that Carol will not have sex with him unless they get married, he (wait for it) marries her. But the bonds of wedlock do not keep him from flagrantly lusting after Melissa, who gradually falls in love with Todd, a shy and husky man who Tandy tries to kill in order to be with Melissa. Did I mention that it’s a comedy? The format of the show makes it simple for adventures to occur, with other survivors occasionally finding the group, some with evil intent, others not. As the show progresses, the group moves hither and yon, allowing for more variety in the storylines. No question, this is a great show, but the overall vibe is one of discomfort and shuddering. And it’s a comedy!

I enjoy all of these shows, but they leave me feeling a little bit dirty, a little disillusioned with humankind. Still, if you want to see superior writing, most excellent acting and clever plot twists, you could do worse than these unhappy comedies. Come on down to Everett Public Library and take one for a test drive. Mileage may vary.

30 Minutes Every Day…

Document (1)Summer is one of the busiest – and most exciting – times of year at our library. In Youth Services, we spend a lot of time focusing on our Summer Reading program. The basics are simple – we want youths to retain their reading skills while school is out, and research has found that reading for 30 minutes every day is the sweet spot. For this reason, we set a goal of reading for 24 hours by the end of the summer, and offer prizes for those who participate.

Have any questions about our reading program? We’ve got the answers!

Who can participate?

Our Youth Summer Reading Program is for anyone going into 12th grade or under. We also have a yearlong reading challenge for adults that you can learn about here.

What counts as “reading?”

We really like to emphasize that any form of reading counts including, but not limited to, reading on your own, stories read aloud by someone else, reading to younger siblings, listening to audiobooks, and, of course, reading graphic novels and comics. Because our program begins at birth, we also encourage parents to count time that infants and toddlers spend interacting with books, whether they are paging through them or just seeing what they taste like!

How does the program work?

We have reading logs for children and teens which can be picked up any time at our library. Readers can color in one star in the log for each half-hour of reading they do. Beginning July 1, participants can bring their logs back to the library and win prizes. Prizes are awarded at 12 hours and 24 hours, and will be available until August 31 (or until we run out).

At 12 hours, our readers get a color-changing pencil and their choice of a ticket to the Imagine Children’s Museum or a Seattle Storm basketball game in Everett. At 24 hours, they get a free book and entry in a grand-prize raffle. And if they finish by August 16, they are invited to our summer reading party which always includes exciting VIPs!

I like prizes! How do I sign up?

To sign up, just pick up a reading log at our Youth Services reference desk!

Every spring, our Youth Services Librarians visit Elementary and Middle Schools throughout Everett, promoting this program and getting students excited about the books they can read this summer. My visits center mostly on middle schools, where I see groups of sixth and seventh graders. These trips are exhilarating and exhausting, and are always one of the highlights of my year. Here are a few of the books I brought that students seemed especially eager to read:

The Owls Have Come to Take Us Away by Ronald L. Smith

Simon has always been obsessed with aliens, but now it seems that they are obsessed with him. Simon mostly keeps to himself – his dad is in the air force, so his family moves a lot, and he has trouble fitting in and making friends. To ward off loneliness, he lets his imagination run wild researching UFO sightings, convinced that many of them are real and determined to find a pattern in these alien encounters.

Then one dark night on a family camping trip, Simon is attacked. Although it seems that he was simply clawed by an owl, Simon knows better. This was alien work. And the gouge in his stomach isn’t a scratch from an owl, it’s proof of an alien implant. When Simon tells his parents what happened, they are beyond skeptical and take him to a psychiatrist, who in turn prescribes him some medication. But none of this helps Simon with his problems. As Simon falls deeper and deeper into his obsession, it remains unclear whether these events are actually happening or if Simon is losing his sanity. If you want to know which is the case, you’ll have to read it!

Lizzy Legend by Matthew Ross Smith

For 13-year old Lizzy, basketball IS life. She practices every free moment, obsessing over every part of her game and analyzing the greats. Someday she hopes to be a legend herself, but right now her goal is to make the boys team at her school. She manages to make the team and become the star player, but she also has some things weighing her down. She lives with her dad, who has trouble keeping a job, and debt collectors are always breathing down their necks.

Then one day she gets a strange call. It sounds like the kind of robo-call that promises a free vacation or new iPhone but winds up a total scam, except this call tells Lizzie that she is pre-selected for one free wish. She says the first things that comes to mind, then hangs up the phone and forgets the call. But something strange has happened. Lizzie soon realizes that her wish has come true and she can make any shot she shoots. Pretty quickly a viral video leads to a tryout for a professional team, and before she knows it, Lizzie finds herself on the court playing for a pro team against full-grown men, with her power on the fritz. There’s a big game on the line and her new team is counting on her, so Lizzy needs to find a way to beat the best.

Beast Rider by María Elena Fontanot de Rhoads and Tony Johnston

The beast is a massive, fast moving network of trains that snake through Mexico toward its border with the United States. It is a treacherous ride, on a route with many people who could leave you dead – deceitful criminals, violent gangs, and corrupt police. Manuel is a 12-year-old living in the Oaxaca region of Mexico who dreams of joining his brother Toño in Los Angeles. But to do so, he will need to ride the beast.

This book follows his three-year journey, with its many hungry nights, threats, near deaths, and cruel beatings. Manuel also meets many kind and caring people who help him along the way. As he slowly gets closer to LA, Manuel begins to wonder if he will survive to make it there and if he will ever be able to forget the terrible things that have happened along the way. This book is, at times, a thrilling adventure and a heartbreaking story of sacrifice. But it is also an account of the perilous journey that many people endure to seek a better life and it also explores the reasons why people take such giant risks, and the stories that they bring with them.

Dreadnought by April Daniels

Danny lives in the Pacific Northwest in New Port City. In her world, superheroes and supervillains roam the skies, waging epic battles between good and evil. It might sound cool, but for ordinary people like Danny it is just plain dangerous. So when she witnesses a battle up close, she tries to stay out of the way until the great hero Dreadnought crashes down next to her, mortally wounded. As he dies in her arms, Danny is both terrified and annoyed – because even a dying superhero manages to misgender her. Danny presents as male, but is actually a trans woman.

As Dreadnought dies, something unbelievable happens. His powers transfer to Danny, not just giving her super strength and the ability to fly, but also transforming her body into what it is meant to be, that of a young woman. Needless to say, this is a lot for Danny. For one thing, she wasn’t ready to come out to the world and now her true identity is impossible to hide. She also must figure out how to fit in with the Legion of superheroes and hunt down the evil cyborg, Utopia, who killed Dreadnought and is a massive threat to humanity. So Danny joins with another hero and must learn to navigate life with her new body and her responsibilities as a superhero in time to stop the evil Utopia before it is too late.

XL by Scott Brown

Will is disastrously short. I don’t mean just a bit short for his age – at 16, he is just 4’11.”  This is beyond an embarrassing height. It makes him miserable and he has tried every crazy trick, miracle cream, and superstition to try to grow taller. Nothing has worked. Luckily, he has his best friends by his side, his stepbrother Drew and Monica, a book-obsessed surfer, who Will secretly loves.

Then two things happen that throw Will’s life into chaos. First, he catches Drew kissing Monica. Not only does this break Will’s heart, it also sends their little group into chaos. And then, Will starts growing. And growing. And growing. At first this is great- he can reach the pedals in his car, he grab things off top shelves. Then he gets taller – even better! He can look DOWN on his classmates. He can dunk. Then he gets taller. His body hurts, he is always hungry, and people start treating him like maybe there is something wrong with him. And to make things worse, it seems that the taller he gets, the harder it is to stay friends with Drew and Monica. Without them, Will doesn’t have anyone to hold him back as he grows into a bigger and bigger jerk. What’s a 7-foot tall ego monster to do?

Versailles of the Dead by Kumiko Suekane

Marie Antoinette is on her way from her native Austria to France, where she will marry the future king, securing peace between their countries. In real life Marie is beheaded during the French Revolution, but not in this book! Zombies devour her instead. The only survivor of the attack is Marie’s twin brother, Albert. Albert continues to Versailles, hoping to take refuge with the court. When he gets there, the King, who is trying to fight off the zombie invasion and can’t afford a war with Austria, decides that Albert will disguise himself as Marie and marry the Dauphin (prince). Now Albert has a lot on his plate. He must trick the people into believing he is Marie, including many who are suspicious of him, wondering how he alone managed to survive the zombie attack. He also has to survive a court filled with deadly intrigue and deadlier romance, and fight a few zombies along the way.  This is a terrifically fun and ghoulish new manga series!

Funny Stuff on the Box

I am a person who thrives on comedy. When choosing movies, television shows or books I always gravitate towards humor. And now that Seinfeld is rumored to be cancelled (pause for laughter), I’m always on the lookout for new sitcoms. What with cable and streaming services, the new offerings are more numerous than ever before. Here are a few newish shows that I have come to treasure.

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Fresh off the Boat is the story of a Taiwanese family that moves from Washington D.C. to Orlando so the father can open a cowboy-themed steakhouse. As so many Taiwanese dads do in Florida. The family consists of parents, three boys, and grandma. In addition to typical sitcom plotlines the Huangs are faced with culture shock while attempting to mix seamlessly with the Orlando way of life. What makes this show stand out is the superior acting of all parties and the clever writing. The “sit” part of the sitcom is pretty typical, but the “com” is a cut above the rest.

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But perhaps you’re the kind of person who’s looking for proof of alien abductions in your television comedies. Fear not! People of Earth is just the ticket for you. The cast includes a group of abductees trying to make sense of what’s happened to them, a reporter trying to write a story on the group, and three aliens of different species (one of whom is named Jeff) trying to conquer earth. Ozzie, the journalist, is not a believer but the more he investigates the more it appears that the group’s claims are true. He even begins to suspect that he himself is an abductee. Meanwhile, the aliens halfheartedly attempt their conquest. One of the freshest and funniest shows I’ve seen in a long time, but be aware that TBS quite suddenly pulled the plug on it, leaving a cliffhanger that will never be resolved.

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Finally we find Angie Tribeca, a police comedy strongly reminiscent of Police Squad!. The show’s focus is the LAPD’s infamous Really Heinous Crimes Unit. Sight gags, one liners and general silliness prevail whilst the officers attempt to solve cases. If you enjoy this exchange from Airplane! then you’re dead-certain to love Angie Tribeca.

Rumack: You’d better tell the Captain we’ve got to land as soon as we can. This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.
Elaine Dickinson: A hospital? What is it?
Rumack: It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.

These are just a few of the truly superior comedies available for your viewing pleasure at Everett Public Library. So get out your banana peel, couch and VHS player and settle in for a long, funny Spring.

Bill Murray Stories

Everyone has a story about Bill Murray, whether it be something he did in a movie, on a talk show or during his run on Saturday Night Live. My Bill Murray story might be his appearance on the first episode of Late Night with David Letterman in 1982. It was a rather crazy bit of television and I later found out that Bill and Dave were both drunk at the show’s taping. Or perhaps it would be the many ways in which his dialogue from movies has permeated my life.

Caddyshack
caddyshack
“So we finish 18 and he’s gonna stiff me. And I say, ‘Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know.’ And he says, ‘Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.’ … So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.”

This completely improvised speech came from the lips of Carl Spackler (Murray) in Caddyshack regarding the time he caddied for the dalai lama. Now I frequently think to myself, “I’ve that going for me.” Which is nice.

Stories

But not everyone has a story about how Bill came to their birthday party and sang or served them a drink in their local bar. And this is precisely what the movie The Bill Murray Stories is about. Apparently, many people tell of encounters they’ve had with Bill Murray. It’s even become an internet thing to post these tales. Tommy Avallone, the film’s director, sets out to determine if these stories are true or simply urban legend. And as Bill Murray is notoriously difficult to contact (he has an 800 number that goes directly to an answering machine and he seldom returns calls) Avallone does this without going to the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

Stripes
Stripes
Oh, it’s not the speed really so much, I just wish I hadn’t
drunk all that
cough syrup this morning.

So Avallone begins tracking down people who claim to have had serendipitous encounters with Mr. Murray. Stories range from Bill washing dishes at a house party to Bill playing kickball with strangers in the park. In each case, the stories’ purveyors are able to provide photographic proof of the incidents. More than just legend, it appears that the Bill Murray stories are true!

Ghostbusters
Ghostbusters
“Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!”

This wonderful movie continues on to dissect Murray’s philosophy, his way of life. As this aspect of the story is somewhat mysterious and surprising, I’ll leave you to explore it on your own. And I highly recommend that you immediately check this film out so that you too can be in the know.

Prolific actor, funny guy, bringer of joy, he is… Bill Murray.

Fame Adjacent

Something weird happened to me when I was a kid. I was on a TV show, and afterward, everyone on it became famous except for me.

This is how Fame Adjacent by Sarah Skilton begins. What appears to be a monologue in front of a live studio audience slowly reveals itself to actually be Holly Danner’s introduction in group therapy. Like many former child actors, as an adult Holly has found herself in rehab. She’s an addict, but it’s not what you think. Holly isn’t addicted to painkillers, alcohol, or gambling.

Holly is an internet addict.

That’s right. Internet addiction is an acknowledged and treatable problem in this book. Patients’ phones, tablets, laptops, and smart watches are locked up upon arrival. There’s no television, because television is likely to remind patients what they’re missing during their internet withdrawal. Patients are encouraged to participate in group therapy, play board games, and generally relearn how to unplug, connect with other people, and most of all get a good night’s sleep. There are no devices, and no online connections.

Withdrawal symptoms can be difficult to conquer. There’s the paranoia that the whole world is going ahead without your knowledge or permission. Swiping on unswipable things, like the view out a window, are common causes of crying breakdowns. Restless hands don’t know what to do with themselves, so talismans like stones are offered as a way to keep busy hands occupied.

And patients’ focused addictions are varied. One patient is addicted to popping videos–that would be YouTube videos of pimples being popped, cysts being lanced, etc. Another patient is obsessed with comparing her life to other moms’ seemingly perfect lives on Instagram, to the point of extreme depression and withdrawing from her real-life family. These addictions all got so huge they ruined the patients’ lives and make them take refuge in rehab.

Holly isn’t just addicted to surfing the internet, or using a specific app. She has recently become obsessed with her former castmates’ lives and telling the world that she was a part of their success, even if no one has ever heard of her. Best known for her role in the early 90s kids’ show Diego and the Lion’s Den, Holly was never able to replicate that success. She eventually faded into insignificance while everyone else went on to be super-huge mega stars.

What sent her into this tailspin was the announcement of a 25th anniversary reunion show with the entire cast. Everyone, that is, except for Holly. You see, Holly wasn’t invited–and something inside of her snapped. No one ever uses the phrase “psychotic break” but I read between the lines. After she lost her job, Holly’s family staged an intervention, which is what gave her the wake-up call she needed to seek professional help. But the timing is perfect. She figures she can go to rehab for the recommended six weeks, “get cured,” and still make it back to San Diego in time to crash the reunion show to set the record straight and give her former best friends a very large piece of her mind. On national television. Why not?

Then she starts making a connection with a fellow patient, Thom. He’s the whole reason she staged her introduction as a nightclub act. He tells every new patient in group therapy, “Pretend it’s your nightclub act,” but she’s the first person who actually took him up on it. He won’t tell Holly what his specific internet addiction is, but she realizes it truly won’t make her think less of him if she finds out what it is. That’s because she’s starting to realize she cares about him as more than just a fellow patient.

Thom completes his rehab and is released at the same time Holly discovers that the date for the reunion show got changed. Now she’s got less than three days to get from Ohio to NYC with no car, no credit cards, and no prospects. Except for Thom, who refuses to take her–or does he?

What starts out as a fascinating look into the world of internet addiction, mega-celebrity, and friendships gone wrong takes a drive into romance and that great American favorite–road fiction! Yes readers, we have ourselves a book that’s one part rehab, one part road trip, and 100% hilarious, heartwarming, and introspective.

Choices will be made. Hearts will be broken. But one thing is uncertain: will Holly get to the show on time? And if she does, what is she actually going to tell her former BFFs and the millions of people watching live at home?

I sadly identified with Holly a bit. Like Holly, I went through a period after high school where I broke it off with some friends who I felt only used my friendship when it was convenient for them. Holly and I are also the exact same age, so all of her cultural touchstones really hit home with me. And then there’s her voice. The snarky comedian who tends to put others before her. Sound familiar? I became emotionally invested in seeing Holly through to the very last page.

If you want to find out how Holly handles being on the sidelines of stardom, you’ll want to place a hold now so you can read Fame Adjacent when it comes out on April 9th.

Until then, I’m going to try to cut back on my internet time and increase my face-to-face time with the people I love. After all, no amount of Reddit AMAs or YouTube videos can ever come close to in-person conversation and making memories.