Groundhog Day, Teenage Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this keeps happening.

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

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

The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Danes

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

The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth

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

Karate Chop & So Much for that Winter by Dorthe Nors

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

Unit One & Borgen

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

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

Woah, Flashback, Dude

flasSince my early days as a li’l shaver, Electric Light Orchestra has been one of my favorite groups. Combining harmonies and hooks that would melt Frosty the Snowman’s heart together with jaunty, swashbuckling strings for the old folks, ELO has produced the best mixture of rock and classical music known to humankind.

One common observation about the band is that they continued on with the grand orchestral rock of Sgt. Pepper era Beatles. And yes, their songs are huge. Seemingly infinite string sections (courtesy of overdubbing), blaring French horns, banks of synthesizers… all of these elements contribute to the pomp. Then there’s a bit of Beach Boys in the mix as well. Sugar sweet multi-voice harmonies mix with deep-sea hooks in a candy-coated web of classical complexity. Or something like that.

On their earliest albums ELO focused equally on rock and orchestral influences. For example, their first hit single, 10538 Overture, includes 15 tracks of cello, as well as French horns and a fairly even blend of rock and classical elements. The song is quite catchy and is firmly entrenched in the rock genre, but clearly contains orchestral elements as well.

Their cover of Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven employs the brilliant idea of mixing the iconic rock and roll song with bits and pieces of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. We hear synthesizers playing Beethoven riffs over rock band backings, strings playing rock and roll solos, and a fairly poppy interpretation of Berry’s tune. The combination is magical, showcasing the best of two different worlds.

As we move forward in time, classical elements become less important in ELO’s music. Strings and synths still appear frequently in the music, but within a more pop/rock framework. Strange Magic, off of the group’s fifth album, Face the Music, starts with a string intro that’s purely pop in structure, bearing little resemblance to the classical riffs of earlier songs. This intro quickly shifts to guitar and synth, then vocals and eventually drums. Strings and synth strings continue throughout the song, but more as pop accompaniment than to any classical end. It’s still easy to hear the “orchestra” in Electric Light Orchestra, but their style has forever shifted.

To my mind, Out of the Blue (1977) is the group’s masterpiece. This double album includes one fabulous song after another. Mr. Blue Sky, which is simply a pop masterpiece, is a prime example of the album’s excellence. Once again we hear strings and synth used generously in a pop context, giving the song a spacious, cavernous heft. As it begins to wind down, Mr. Blue Sky finds itself beset with operatic vocals, a sudden shift to new musical ideas, and a gradual dovetailing back to the familiar. The listener is left with an overtly dramatic, somewhat cataclysmic mood swing.

Flashback, a career-spanning retrospective, is a great place to start a relationship with Electric Light Orchestra. Early classical-oriented songs, mid-period pop gems, and late less-to-my-taste tracks can all be found here. So give it a spin in your jukebox, light up the disco ball and prepare to be amazed. Remember, the sweetness content is very high, so be sure to floss when finished.

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.