Some Light Reading for the End of the World

I get a kick out of a story that can combine world-changing, terrifying, and sometimes supernatural events with a fairly traditional, mundane coming of age story. This is one of the many things I love about Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle. Shaun David Hutchinson also showed his skill with this kind of work in We are the Ants and he doubled down in his latest novel, The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza.

At first glance, Elena Mendoza is similar to lots of teenage protagonists. School can be rough – she isn’t exactly popular, but she has made her own community. She loves her mom and younger siblings but hates her loser stepdad. I can keep going: her job sucks, Freddie, the girl she pines for, seems to have no clue she exists, inanimate objects often speak to her and she is the product of a virgin birth. Like I said, pretty typical.

81G6+tEFWqLSo about that virgin birth thing. Despite being shouldered with a “miracle child” moniker, there is a scientific explanation for Elena’s situation. She is the first proven human case of parthenogenesis, a form of reproduction involving an unfertilized egg. Other than some cruel classmates who nicknamed her Mary, Elena has largely been able to shed any spotlight that might come from the unique circumstances of her birth. Time heals all wounds and brings enough sensational news stories each day to allow hers to fade away.  

The voices Elena hears are a little harder to explain, but truth be told they give her advice that usually proves helpful so she has learned to live with them and hide them from the surrounding world, even from her mother and her best friend, Fadil. Then one day while at work she witnesses a classmate shoot Freddie and is told by the logo on a Starbucks cup to save Freddie’s life. Though it defies explanation, Elena is able to heal Freddie and her reputation as a miracle girl comes storming back, bringing Elena a mess of unwanted attention.

To make matters worse, the boy who shot Freddie disappeared in a ray of light right after Elena performed her “miracle.” The voices tell Elena that she must heal more people to save the world. Fadil, a devout Muslim, tells her to trust in God and plenty of others tell her she is either crazy or a fraud. For her part, Elena is sure there must be some sort of scientific explanation and she is reluctant to use her powers. But with so many people suffering around her, how can she resist? Unfortunately, every time she heals someone, people disappear in strange beams of light. And as her profile grows, more people seem to want to use her, from her selfish stepdad to shadowy government agents. So Elena is left with quite the needle to thread: save the world, avoid manipulation, solve this rapture mystery and figure out if Freddie likes her or resents her for saving her life. No sweat?

Hutchinson packs a lot into this book and in less capable hands this story could have gone off the rails or veered into religious speculation that just isn’t my taste. Yet Elena is a sensible, compassionate, and delightfully wry narrator who manages to keep this wild novel somewhat grounded. I loved her mix of optimism and pragmatism and her quick banter with Fadil, Freddie, and her ex-boyfriend Javi.  

More than anything else, however, I appreciate the way this book handles identity. I read a lot of YA fiction that features queer characters and I appreciate the thought and care with which so many authors today write about questioning or discovering sexuality, coming out, facing bigotry, and finding acceptance. I also believe, however, that we need stories like this one. Elena has lots of insecurities but is perfectly open and comfortable with her bisexuality. And that is also how she is treated by Hutchinson. Her identity is only addressed as it pertains to the story. It’s a fact of life, not a plot point. The same could be said for the treatment of Fadil’s religion and Elena’s Cuban-American heritage. Hutchinson’s matter-of-fact approach to diverse representation not only makes for great writing but creates a world that I want to live in. Even if it is on the brink of apocalypse.

Danger, Will Robinson!

Most popular music consists of both music and words. I find that I respond almost entirely to music, seldom paying too much attention to lyrics, which is probably just as well since most lyrics are drivel. This is not opinion, it’s science.

When I’m reading music reviews, the reviewer often will quote lyrics that he finds especially moving or clever. I almost always find these examples to be spectacularly inane, which leads me to wonder if when I share lyrics that are incredibly meaningful to me, everyone else finds them stupid.

Don’t get me wrong; clever lyrics can be amazing. But most folks who write rock songs are content to rhyme home and roam, wife and life, booze and lose. The little grey cells are not stretched much to come up with these expressions of creativity.

So, I set out to find strange, meaningful, beautiful lyrics. And let me tell you, it was not an easy journey. I finally arrived on my own doorstep, so to speak, with the album Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? by Seattle’s own Harvey Danger. Here we find clever, quirky lyrics that are coated with a fine sprinkling of pathos and powdered sugar.

Hear the voices in my head
I swear to God it sounds like they’re snoring
But if you’re bored then you’re boring
The agony and the irony, they’re killing me

Flagpole Sitta contains some of my favorite lyrics in songdom, yet if asked to explain the song’s meaning I would be largely guessing. If one looks at forums discussing this very topic, one will be highly amused by the extreme variety of responses. Ultimately, as with all great art, the lyrics mean whatever you want them to. That aside, I’m attracted by the waggish wordplay. In the above example the narrator is apparently suffering from auditory hallucinations, but at the same time has such low self-esteem that he feels he’s putting his hallucinations to sleep. Sad if true, but in the context of song lyrics quite amusing.

The chorus is short and poignant.

 I’m not sick but I’m not well
And I’m so hot ’cause I’m in hell

This gives some insight into the narrator’s mind: Not sick but not well, suffering as from the fires of hell. Not a happy person. But he’s still able to find humor in the idiocy of others.

Been around the world and found
That only stupid people are breeding
The cretins cloning and feeding
And I don’t even own a TV

Carlotta Valdez is another jocular song on this album, featuring lyrics that should have won a MacArthur Genius Award.

Everything’s subjective
Nothing lasts for Johnny O
K-Kiss Kim Novak where the redwoods grow

These lyrics refer to the movie Vertigo, which has a plot that’s insanely difficult to explain. Picture Jimmy Stewart, people falling off buildings, a femme fatale (played by Kim Novak) who Stewart becomes obsessed with, and a bad case of vertigo. Carlotta Valdez is a long-dead woman who is possibly related to the femme fatale.

Jimmy Stewart follows Kim to where your portrait hangs on a wall
Such a haunting vision, he forgets his partner’s fall

The words are actually a clever plot synopsis, far more succinct than any I could provide.

Go up the mission stair
I’ll follow anywhere — that is, until you climb too high

So the lesson today? Good lyrics do exist, but it can be a hunt to find them. And, choosing music based on the lyrics rather than the genre can be a good way to expose yourself to new things. Like Harvey Danger.

Spot-Lit for March 2018

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 2018 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction.

Underrated Reads

Every so often a book blips across my radar and I recall how freaking awesome it was to read it for the first time. Then, because I’m a cataloger and I live for our database and its statistics, I will take a peek at our checkout stats. Imagine my disbelief and sadness when gems I adore have low checkout numbers. How can this be? Don’t people realize how amazing this book is?

No. No, they do not!

For whatever reason some books that we library folk hold near and dear seem to have missed getting the spotlight. So with that in mind I asked my colleagues to recommend some of the best books they’ve read that don’t seem to be getting the love and attention they deserve. Read on for recommendations from Jennifer, Mindy, Ron, and Susan, as well as a few of my own. One piece of advice: get your library cards ready now. You’re going to want to put these on hold ASAP.

Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson is one of those books that seemed to slip into my hands without much decision-making on my part and quietly became one of the best books I read last year. As you might recall if you read Serena‘s rad post recently, Piecing Me Together is the 2018 recipient of the Coretta Scott King author award. It’s the story of Jade, an African-American teen in Portland who struggles with the different pieces of her identity as well as being put into a mentoring program for “at-risk” girls, a program that Jade feels disillusioned with when she can’t seem to click with her mentor. I loved​ everything about this book. Jade is a complex and dynamic character whose unique voice is still in my head long after I closed the book. Love, love, love.
–Carol

Shortly before traveling to Europe I read Gospel by Wilton Barnhardt. Among other things, the story is about a professor and his assistant traveling across Europe in search of an apocryphal gospel. Although fictional, it was a beautiful introduction to the old country. Intrigue, bad guys, excessive drinking… all you could want in a tall tale! Barnhardt is not prolific or well known, but he is a talented writer well worth checking out.
–Ron

Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge is one of those novels that has stuck with me because, while I can’t remember the specific details, I do remember how deeply it made me feel. Set in Budapest and Paris, it is the story of Hungarian Jewish family during the rise of anti-Semitism and the eruption of World War II across Europe. The Invisible Bridge is historical fiction at its finest—an emotionally riveting plot, richly detailed setting, and compelling characters who struggled to survive and build human connections in the face of unbearable tragedy. Eight years later, I’m still hoping the author writes another novel. If you loved All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, I recommend checking out The Invisible Bridge.
–Mindy

Small town with a big problem? Teen girl going to quietly start a revolution to topple the kings of this dumpster fire? Sign me up! I was definitely ready for a revolution when I read Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu. As a way to resist the status quo at her conservative Texas high school, Viv takes a page from her mom’s past as a Riot Grrrl and starts a zine called Moxie. I absolutely loved how the Moxie movement became more than just one girl’s way of dealing with the bullying, misogyny, racism, and favoritism in her high school. Others used the spirit of Moxie to give them the courage to stand up for themselves against their adversaries. Part romance but mostly a quiet girl coming to understand her voice and herself, this insightful, relatable, and quotable book will get readers fired up! MOXIE GIRLS FIGHT BACK!
–Carol

Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis, while being a science fiction book featuring time travel, is really a look at life in Europe during the plague. In fact, upon reading this incredible historical novel, you will feel like you’ve lived through plague times. It’s a stunning journey into a time that we can hardly imagine, yet Willis imagined it in perfect detail!
–Ron

I first picked up volume one of Bandette, Presto!, by husband-wife team Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover from the library after cataloging it. I was completely charmed by the Parisian setting and the moxie of the title character. Bandette is a warm-hearted teenage thief, sort of like a modern-day Robin Hood. She hangs out with other French kids, lobs friendly taunts towards the bumbling local police detective, and has both an alter ego and an arch nemesis (though sometimes they join forces for the greater good). I dare you to read Presto! and not pick up volumes two and three as well.
–Carol

Critics panned The Colorado Kid by Stephen King because the ending was neither happy or tied together. It left a lot of readers upset when they reached the ending and it didn’t explain anything. But that genius King knew what he was doing and I think a little part of him wanted to make people left unsatisfied with no answers.
–Jennifer

I think sometimes the books of new authors are underappreciated just because readers haven’t discovered them yet. Two new authors I discovered last year that I like very much are thriller writers Nick Petrie and Steve Cavanagh. Petrie’s second book, Burning Bright, was published last year and I loved it. The hero, Peter Ash, is a super competent military vet with an interesting form of PTSD. His first book, The Drifter, is also worth a read. The third book in this series, Light It Up, was just published in January. Cavanagh is a new Irish writer whose first book, The Defense, was recently published in the US. It’s a legal thriller set in New York and I liked it a lot. His second book, The Plea, was just published on February 13th.
–Susan

I started reading I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez at the same time that it was announced as a finalist for the National Book Award. It’s a realistic coming-of-age story centered around Julia, her dead sister Olga, and the secrets Olga left behind that threaten Julia’s future before it has even begun. As Julia chafes against her over-protective parents and tries to uncover just what Olga was hiding when she died, Julia will travel from her home in Chicago to Mexico and back again, exposing herself to a family history she may not want to accept and an uncertain future where she wants desperately to make her own path. The writing is exquisite: achingly real, brutally honest, a total gut-punch of a book that I could not put down until long after the last page was read.
–Carol

The World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, fascinates me as an early example of cultural exchange, of the world becoming a smaller place, of the industrial revolution’s amazing accomplishments. Imagine this backdrop as the setting for a murder mystery involving the world’s most imminent detectives! Steve Hockensmith has done just this in the hilarious World’s Greatest Sleuth, another Amlingmeyer brothers adventure. Read on as the two cowpokes match wits with the wittiest crime solvers on earth in a detection contest. Who will win? Who will survive?
–Ron

We hope you find something here to love, or at least give a chance. What are some of your favorite underrated reads? Let us know in the comments below, because if there’s anything we love more than giving book recommendations it’s getting them!

Madame Luella Boyer

February is African American History Month. Libraries, archives, museums, and other organizations around the country observe this month as a way to recognize and honor the rich and challenging history of African Americans. In honor of this occasion, I am sharing the story of one of the most fascinating individuals I’ve come across in my work in the Northwest Room at the Everett Public Library— Luella Ruth Brown Boyer Brent, aka Madame Boyer. Boyer was a successful African American businesswoman in early Everett at a time when few economic opportunities existed for African Americans or women.

1908 Everett City Directory listingMost of what I know about Madame Boyer I learned from local historian and genealogist, Margaret Summitt of the Mukilteo Historical Society. She painstakingly examined decades worth of genealogical records, newspapers, and city directories to reconstruct Boyer’s life story.

Luella was born in Iowa in 1868. Her father’s lineage traces back to the first slaves brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Her parents had moved to Iowa, a free state, from Missouri, a slave state, in 1864 while the nation was still engulfed in Civil War. Her father worked as a laborer and her mother worked as a domestic servant. Neither could read nor write, yet they worked to ensure their children could achieve more. Luella’s brother, Samuel, became an attorney, civil rights activist and NAACP leader in Des Moines, Iowa.

The available historical records only reveal bits and pieces of Luella’s life. We know that by 1900 she was married to John C. Boyer, a barber, and living in Lewiston, Idaho. They moved to Everett around 1902 and became part of the black community in this region. Around the time they moved to Everett, Luella began marketing herself and her professional services—hair care products—as “Madame Boyer.” She was likely inspired by Madame C.J. Walker, a self-made millionaire and wildly successful African American entrepreneur with a popular line of hair care products. (Walker was the Oprah Winfrey of her generation.) The couple adopted a daughter in 1903 and separated around 1905.

Even as a single mother, Boyer’s career flourished during these years. She promoted herself not just as a hair dresser, but also a dermatologist by 1908.

Boyer remarried in 1910 to Bertrand Brent at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church. Mr. Brent was white and employed as a waiter and a janitor at Everett Public Library.

Luella was a trailblazing entrepreneur during a time when few economic opportunities were available to black women. But she is also notable for her contributions to Everett’s cultural life and as a leader on issues of race and social change.

In May 1902, Madame Boyer and her husband went to a theater performance in Seattle by Bert Williams and George Walker, pioneering black entertainers. Boyer—who also made ends meet by working as a housekeeper for the Everett Opera House for $1 a night—is thought to have been a key player in bringing Williams and Walker to perform their landmark musical “In Dahomey” to Everett in 1905.

Receipt from 1905 for Luella Boyer

Madame Boyer’s social activism was well-documented in the Seattle Republican, an African American  newspaper. She participated in the newspaper’s Sunday Forums regarding social issues, submitted discussion questions, and addressed the forum twice. She offered one talk on racial discrimination and another on prostitution and gender inequality. She died from diabetic complications in 1912, at age 44.

Although we may know a lot about when, where, and what Boyer did in her life, I am more intrigued by all that we don’t know. What did she look like? (There are no known photos!) Why was she in Idaho and Washington at a time when 90% of the country’s African American population still lived in the South? What motivated her to move here, and what hardships did she endure? What inspired her business, civic, and familial decisions? What was it like to be an African American woman in Everett in the early 20th century, a rough-and-tumble mill town?

Related readings:

book coverAfrican American Women Confront the West: 1600-2000 by Quintard Taylor

In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990 by Quintard Taylor

The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District, from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era by Quintard Taylor

Seattle’s Black Victorians, 1852-1901 by Esther Hall Mumford

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

You Are Healed!

Back in the mid to late 80s there was this channel that would play religious ‘talk shows,’ usually with women who put their make up on with a trowel and had high hair (the bigger the hair, the closer to God) and a husband already sweating two minutes into the beginning of the show while walking through a crowd. I confess that during bouts of insomnia, (yes, 10 year olds can get insomnia; they can also remember where their mother hid the huge bag of Skittles at 3am) I would watch these shows just to see the sweaty dude go to a line of people anxiously waiting to be healed by the power of this man who was a direct conduit for God.

Even at the age of 10, I could spot that split second dismay in the ‘you are healed’ faces of the people, like they were thinking: This dude just punched me in the forehead. And then the look of acceptance: Well, it is almost a direct healing from God and it takes my attention off the drag queen up on the stage in the pink and red sequin jumpsuit so….okay. I feel the same way about figure skating. It’s a beautiful sport, an elegant and intimate dance of two bodies that know each other so well. But I only watch it hoping one of them will fall and slid across the ice on their butt.

I never said I was a good person.

I almost skipped Stephen King’s book Revival, published in 2014, because I didn’t want a doom and gloom angry God book but after the first couple of pages I was hooked. Duh. It’s Stephen King. Oh, my apologies. I know I wrote my last post about Stephen King but the man delivers and when he promises to make you forget reality through his writing, he means it.

Charles Jacobs is a new minister in town. Everybody loves him and his wife and his son, especially a young man named Jamie Morton. But Charles Jacobs’s wife and child die in a tragic car accident and Charles denounces God and all religions and is basically run out-of-town for his blasphemy. He spends years honing a side-show gimmick until something happens that makes him regain his faith and he becomes a faith healer. You see, all his life he’s dabbled with electricity and is harnessing it somehow. How very Tesla of him.

Jamie Morton is all grown up now and a musician with a nasty heroin habit. He meets up again with Charles Jacobs who uses his weird electrical gift to cure Jamie of his drug habit. But Jamie notices that he has certain side effects: sleepwalking and jabbing sharp objects into his arm as though doping again in his sleep. Jamie begins to investigate all of the people that Charles Jacobs has ‘healed.’

It turns out they’ve all had bizarre side effects from the electrical cure. Some have killed themselves or others. Just as Jamie is cutting ties with Jacobs, Jacobs informs him that Jamie’s childhood sweetheart Astrid is dying from terminal cancer. Jacobs says he’ll heal Astrid if Jamie helps him with one last big electrical experiment. Jamie agrees and Astrid is healed. By now Jamie knows that Jacobs isn’t to be trusted and is probably more unhinged than anyone thinks.

What Jacobs wants to do is harness a massive surge of what he calls ‘secret electricity.’ He’s going to bring about this dose of electricity via a lightning rod and he’s going to zap the electricity from the rod into a terminally ill woman named Mary Fay. It works but not in the way Jacobs hoped. Mary Fay is cured, but she is now a conduit for the Afterlife. Jacobs and Jamie discover there is no heaven, no reward for having lived a kind and good life. Instead, there’s a placed called ‘The Null,’ a dimension where dead humans are forever enslaved by insane creatures right out of an H.P. Lovecraft book. One creature in particular is the most powerful, called Mother, and she now inhabits the body of Mary Fay, breaking her body and turning her into a monster.

Okay, the rest I have written down in my notebook and when I got to the part explaining about the ending I thought: I like my readers, all two of them, and I’m not going to spoil the ending. But even after finishing the book I had to go have a nap and a Bloody Mary (not in that order, I’m not that talented).

Revival isn’t just about losing faith and regaining it. It’s about what people become once they lose or regain faith.

I also think it should be a cautionary tale not to mess with electricity or you’ll end up summoning a demon bent on destroying the world.

Heartwood 8:1 – The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei

The Invisibility Cloak, by Ge Fei, gets its hooks into you right away and makes for a quick read. It features Cui, a man in his 40s, who builds elite tube-amp stereo systems for rich audiophiles in China. An old pal of his, Songping, helps him round up clients and mentions a man named Ding Caichen, who could be a big score as he wants to have the “best sound system in the world.” But Songping warns Cui to be careful: Ding, he tells him, has a gaze like ice, runs with the big money, and no one really seems to know who he is.

The early chapters cover Cui’s interest in an attractive woman named Yufen and their eventual marriage and divorce. He ends up living with his sister and her husband until they give him an ultimatum that he must move out. He happens to find a place he could almost afford to buy and remembers that he might stand to make enough money to cinch the deal if he contacted the client Ding. He does this and, based on a verbal contract by phone, agrees to build him a high-end stereo. Cui gives a detailed account of the experience of delivering and installing the sound system, and his impressions of this strange and potentially threatening man. Ding had previously wired Cui one third of the purchase price as an advance, but rather than paying the balance on the day Cui completed its installation, he caught Cui off-guard by saying he’d wire the balance immediately. This doesn’t happen, so more than a month later Cui returns to the house and is greeted by a woman who wears a silk scarf covering every inch of her face. Things get quite interesting from here, but I leave the details for you to discover.

The jacket copy compares Ge Fei with Haruki Murakami – and the easy-to-read, colloquial style, along with the narrator’s interest in classical music (which does not extend, as it does in Murakami’s case, to jazz) makes for a mostly accurate comparison. Fortunately (in my view), Ge Fei doesn’t venture into the supernatural, although there is mention of a powerful man who is said to show up at parties but goes unnoticed because he wears an invisibility cloak (and this man also once owned the Tannoy Autograph speakers that are now part of Ding’s sound system).

The last part of the book moves a good ways toward noir, and presents a puzzle which had me questioning what exactly had happened (this would be interesting to bat around in a book discussion group). Some readers may not appreciate this ambiguity, but I liked being left with lingering questions regarding the ending and how each alternative outcome or interpretation would greatly change what had gone before. Regardless of the true nature and background of Ding and the woman, the reader can adopt the same spirit of optimism Cui shows in the end, where he seems to have found some measure of happiness – even in the face of this unknowing.