Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 2: “Maps” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

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“Maps” may or may not be the best rock song of the 21st Century (it was released as a single in September of 2003), but I can say that when I heard it for the first time, my reaction to was “Holy shit, that one’s a keeper.” The song had the quality in which it felt simultaneously fresh and like it had been around forever, a gut-punch heartbreaker (to mix metaphors) with a punk-rock wall of sound, and singer Karen O above all of it, opening a vein into her microphone.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have gone on to do more artful things since “Maps” (and after a long absence, they look to be returning with a new album later in the year, which is great), but they’ve never done anything as immediate, as arresting, and as visceral. And when Karen O drops that tear in the video (the song was written for her then-boyfriend, who was supposed to be at the shoot and was very late to it, and the singer was in a state), you know that she means every single word in that song. I was 34 and happily married for nearly a decade when I heard the song, and I still felt shattered by it. That’s power. That’s a hell of a song.

— JS

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Alex Shvartsman

Magic, monsters, and New York Style pizza. Three things you can expect to find in author Alex Shvartsman’s newest book, The Middling Afflication. Come along in this Big Idea to see what else lies within the city that never sleeps.


The big idea behind The Middling Affliction is actually three middling ideas stacked on top of each other, in a noir-sleuth trench coat.

First and foremost, this book is a love letter to New York City, and especially to South Brooklyn where I’ve lived for over thirty years. I wanted to tell a story where my adopted home city feels like a major character, where many locations and even characters are based on real places and real people, which are authentic and believable (for a humorous urban fantasy story, anyway).

Conrad Brent, our snarky and sarcastic protagonist, protects the people of Brooklyn from monsters and magical threats. It’s through his eyes that we see Brooklyn—and some of the other boroughs—and I sincerely hope that I’ve infused him with so much love for the borough that it comes through clearly. And while I’ve tried to avoid the obvious New Yorker clichés, do expect strong opinions about pizza.

The second idea is about the nature of magic. It is established wisdom that, in writing science fiction, the author shouldn’t get into the specifics of how their time machine or their FTL drive actually works. It’s best to gloss over such things, so as not to draw the reader out of the story and invite them to argue the point. Which is perfectly fine, except there’s a completely different standard involved when it comes to fantasy. Got magic in your story? You’d better tell the reader exactly how it works, and in minute detail. You’re expected to reveal its underlying rules with the thoroughness and precision of a role playing manual. It kind of saps the wonder and mystery out of a thing that, by its very nature, is meant to be both wondrous and mysterious.

In the Conradverse, magic works a lot more like real-world science. The basics may be well-understood, but there’s plenty left to discover on its cutting edge. Various groups and factions practice it differently, and they jealously keep some of the key developments to themselves. And that’s the people who study magic; average practitioners may know as little about magic’s inner workings as most people do about the technologies that turn sand and electric current into consumer electronics.

Conrad knows a lot less than he’d like to. He’s a middling—a person who can interact with magic but has no magic of his own. In a secret world filled with superheroes and supervillains, he’s the magical Batman: a grumpy and possibly somewhat unhinged vigilante with no special powers who relies on gadgets to keep up with the super-Joneses. He badly wants to find the cure for his affliction, and throughout this book—and the rest of the series—he will learn a lot more about the nature of magic than he ever expected to.

Finally, the third idea is to examine and reject deeply rooted prejudices. Conrad must hide the fact that he’s a middling, because middlings are despised by many among magic users, even though most of them have never actually met one. He must navigate the society where even some of the nominally good guys would turn against him if they ever learned his secret.

This is a lofty and serious subject for a book that’s 40% sarcasm and pop culture references. Still, as a first generation immigrant who escaped the institutionalized anti-Semitism of the Soviet Union, it’s a subject near and dear to my heart. Conrad is not the only character affected by prejudice; I actively seek to subvert some of the common negative tropes. One of the most kind and selfless characters in the story is a shop keeper; one of the smartest is a member of the species not commonly recognized as highly intelligent, and so on.

These ideas are sugarcoated in a thick layer of action and adventure and—if I’ve done my job right—will have you returning for the sequel!

The Middling Affliction: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

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