What to do when you’re cooped up inside? Across the globe, our regular routines have been completely decimated. For a lot us, that might mean the simple fact of moving your body around or stimulating your mind is happening at a drastically reduced rate. I’m sure we’re all desperate to latch onto something to keep us sane. Blessedly, we live in a time of ample streaming, and with a simple few clicks we can get a book or a movie or a TV show up and running within a matter of seconds. Truly, I would like to apologize to technology for anything bad I may have said about it in the past. So yes, we can get all the sit-on-the-couch content our hearts desire, but what about something to get you moving? Personally, what’s keeping me from going stir-crazy is music. Is there a better feeling than finding a song that vibes with your very soul, or makes you want to jump around in your bedroom, or maybe even inspires you artistically? Luckily, Hoopla gives you access to all sorts of music to stream on your computer or a mobile device—and all you need is your library card. And bonus: the per-month checkout limit has been raised from 5 titles to 10! All the better to get your groove on.
I have been listening to a few albums on repeat this quarantine season (sorry, neighbours!). First on the list: the masked cowboy, Orville Peck. If you haven’t heard of him, you’re welcome. I always forget that I actually really like country music, because most of it is just so….ugh. But when a country song slaps, it slaps (I’m still waiting on Beyoncé to make a country album ever since she put out “Daddy Lessons”). Peck’s version of country is a far cry from whatever passes as a hit in Nashville these days—in fact, it’s practically a genre reset. A callback to when country wasn’t just about trucks and beer (or, if you’re a woman, killing your husband) but was instead the refuge of outsiders: outlaws, rebels, misfits, wayward souls. It was Johnny Cash singing to prisoners, and Willie Nelson championing marijuana in the red states. Peck, then, is a return to form, and his version of “outsider” is being an openly gay crooner with a heightened, Dolly Parton-esque camp aesthetic and a voice that could melt butter. His music has all the twang and warble of old country, but is softened by influences like new wave synth and dreamy shoegaze. Think of The Smiths sung by Elvis, with lyrics by Lana Del Rey, and you’re halfway to Peck. Never seen without his cowboy hat and mask, he’s the sort of enigmatic figure that inspires immediate and intense devotion—I know, because I’m living it.
Yes, it’s the ’20s again! Except unlike the last round of years ending in 20-something, there’s not much “roaring” about our decade so far (I like to joke that it’s more like we’re starting this decade in 1929—dancing on the edge of economic collapse). I’m not usually a fan of head-in-the-sand coping tactics, but I’d be lying if I said I’m not enjoying everyone’s determination to recreate—albeit quite sadly—the golden lustre of 100 years ago. How many 1920s-themed New Years parties did you hear about, or possibly attend? Like that one meme says, “My inner Jay Gatsby is about to pop off. Might fuck around and throw parties for an unrequited love. Might die in a pool. Who knows. It’s the 20s, bby.” The cult of Gatsby is alive and well, and we are determined to have a good time (let’s just ignore the actual themes of the book for the time being). A century later and we’re still seduced by the glamour of flappers and jazz and illicit rumrunners.
If you’re a fan of that Great Gatsby vibe, let me call your attention to a criminally underrated book series, whose final installment The King of Crows hit shelves this past February. It’s called The Diviners by Libba Bray. Every time one of these books drops, it periodically consumes my life. Each one is roughly 500 pages long, and packed to the brim with everything a reader could ask for: 1920s New York, magic powers, ghosts, ridiculous Jazz Age lingo, wild parties, social commentary, even more ghosts, and all the POC and LGBTQ+ representation your heart desires. (Every time I tell someone what these books are about, I feel like Stefon from SNL. “This club has everything…”) Our main girl is Evie O’Neill, the “Sweetheart Seer”; a Midwestern transplant turned New York “Jazz Baby”, who makes a name for herself as a radio psychic. Her new friend Theta Knight is a chorus girl, dancing for the Ziegfeld Follies, while her will-they-won’t-they love interest Sam Lloyd is a charming pickpocket from a Russian Jewish family. Memphis Campbell is a Harlem poet caught up in bookkeeping for the menacing crime bosses of the neighbourhood nightclubs. Ling Chan is the dutiful daughter of Chinese and Irish immigrants, crippled by an illness but no less strong for it. And Henry Dubois IV is a New Orleans runaway, a talented musician at the Follies who escaped his old money home after his father found love letters from another boy in his pocket. This colourful cast of characters fills out the alluring hodge-podge personality of New York, but the best part of all? They all have their own unique powers, coming together under the umbrella term “Diviners” to fight evil, like early 20th century Avengers. The evil in question is the titular King of Crows, a menacing figure from the underworld looking to use Diviners to open a portal between his world and ours. Or something. It’s complicated.
Here at the library we like to keep a close eye on the publishing industry. We like to be informed of any upcoming “big ticket titles”, the newest Reese Witherspoon book club pick, the most recent big purchase by film or television studios. For the most part, it’s pretty smooth sailing. But lately it seems like every month or so the publishing world becomes embroiled in another scandal. Even ignoring the ridiculous high school drama that breeds on Book Twitter, there’s a surprising amount of self-inflicted drama from the big publishing houses that should be easily avoidable. So what’s the problem? Well, to put it bluntly: the industry—like so many others in the West—has a problem handling race.
My colleague Karen wrote a brilliant piece in 2018 about the troubling statistics of race in the romance publishing industry, and two years later it looks like not much has changed. This particular segment of the industry has descended lately into full-on scandal with the whole Romance Writers of America drama that erupted over Christmas in 2019. It’s far too long and convoluted to get into here (if you want the whole scoop, enjoy Pajiba’s cohesive summary), but I’ll give a rundown of the basics. In August of 2019, Courtney Milan (a Chinese American romance author) called out Glenfinnan Publishing for employing a woman named Sue Grimshaw (whose support for Trump, ICE, and history of racism can be traced through her Twitter likes). Soon after, Milan discovered that one of Glenfinnan’s editors Kathryn Lynn Davis had some questionable content in her past, and called out Davis’s 1999 work Somewhere Lies the Moon as racist against Chinese people. Now, I don’t know how helpful it is to be calling out works from 20 years ago (there are a whole host of things from the 90s that would be unacceptable today—that’s how progress works), but the fact is Milan is not wrong and can frankly discuss whatever she wants on her own Twitter. What followed was a deranged, out-of-proportion response from the white members of the Romance Writers of America, an organization to which Milan belonged.