Miss Zukas and the Library Murders by Jo Dereske

zukasI caught a few minutes of a radio interview with a local author, but I never caught her name. She apparently writes library-themed mysteries set in a fictional version of my new hometown; I heard one of her titles, and a tiny bit of research later, had the first book in her series from the local library: she is Jo Dereske, and this is Miss Zukas and the Library Murders.

Miss Zukas is an extreme, ridiculous stereotype of a librarian. She favors color-coordinated cardigans and sensible shoes, still wears her hair in the style her mother gifted her on her sixteenth birthday, and keeps her apartment obnoxiously, antiseptically clean. “She blanched at the idea of stray thoughts popping about.” I thought of a librarian girlfriend of mine, who was offended by the opposing, counterculture librarian-stereotype in NOS4A2 (purple hair, funny hats, obscenities and Henry Rollins) – she felt it was too trendy, too over-the-top. Well, I was tickled by the purple-haired librarian, and for a moment thought I was offended by Miss Zukas. But it’s pretty clear that this is meant in good fun, that Dereske is laughing with us, so on we go. (It helped when she ironically quoted Socrates at her boss; I could almost believe that Miss Zukas herself was in on the joke.)

The mystery itself – the “library murders” – qualifies as a cozy; the blood is off-stage. Even the references to sex (Miss Zukas has a friend who might be termed, by our prim heroine, as promiscuous) are oblique. And yes, you guessed it, Miss Zukas is the amateur sleuth who helps save the day. Her girlfriend Ruth, a free-spirited and often drunk artist, makes a fine sidekick; there is even a little romance along the way. I think the least believable element (in a book not trying too hard for realism, I should point out) was the friendship between these two women: it didn’t quite ring true for me that a woman as OCD and repressed as our Miss Zukas could really maintain a relationship with the outrageous Ruth. But so be it.

I was a little doubtful once or twice early on, but quickly found myself involved in and amused by the story as well as silly Miss Zukas. The book itself is a little silly; certainly light-hearted; but in the end, entertaining. I zipped right through it. And you know I don’t usually find much to occupy me in a cozy, but I may just have to go find book two in this series. A diverting, easy-reading cozy mystery set in a totally wonderful little town (of course), starring a surprisingly endearing librarian of the shushing sort.


Rating: 6 cards in the card catalog.

When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning

A heartfelt history of Armed Services Edition paperback books that helped save the sanity of many GIs in World War II.

books went

Molly Guptill Manning (The Myth of Ephraim Tutt) opens When Books Went to War by documenting the horrified response in the United States to Nazi Germany’s book burnings, beginning in 1933. Bibliophiles fought back in what was characterized as a “total war” of both military might and ideas.

To supply bored, lonely troops with reading materials, librarians in the U.S. organized the Victory Book Campaign, which collected more than 10 million books. To educate the public, the Council on Books in Wartime recommended relevant, topical titles for readers at home, but it found its stride with Armed Services Editions (ASEs). These pocket-sized, lightweight paperbacks, designed for use in the field, not only provided entertainment, escape and enlightenment to American servicemen, but also revolutionized the paperback book in a market that had previously shunned it, employed struggling publishers and helped to jumpstart the publishing industry after the war. Between 1943 and 1947, more than 120 million copies of more than 1,200 fiction and nonfiction titles were printed and efficiently distributed to American soldiers in every theater.

In her moving history, Manning fervently describes the many GIs who returned from war with a love of reading they hadn’t had when they left home, wrote impassioned letters to authors and council members and attributed their college educations to books they discovered as ASEs. For military and general history buffs and lovers of books and libraries, it is difficult to imagine a more inspirational story than this celebration of reading in a time of war.


This review originally ran in the December 23, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 letters.

on picking up another book by Marilyn Johnson

overdueThree people simultaneously bought me Marilyn Johnson’s previous book, This Book Is Overdue!, as I graduated from library school. (Possibly they are reading this now – sorry! I don’t even remember who they were.) I didn’t make it even halfway through. Was it uninspiring, or was it I who was uninspired? worn out from study? It’s a fine question about the intersection of book, reader, time and place; a good reading experience requires a happy meeting of all four. Maybe I would love the book now.

livesI’m rather encouraged to try again. The first pages of Johnson’s latest work, Lives in Ruins, reference librarians immediately – and beer too, twice in three pages; a funny story about the apocalypse is credited to a graduate student, and during an economic depression, “Dublin was running, as far as I could tell, on what spilled out of the pockets of Brits during their bachelor parties.” Johnson is self-deprecating and irreverent, and also serious and passionate about her subject (in this case, archaeologists). What’s not to love?

May have to try This Book Is Overdue! again. Perhaps three well-meaning graduation present givers were right after all.

did not finish: The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai (audio)

borrowerI made it exactly 25 pages into this one (although via audio, which was about 30 minutes, give or take). I remember hearing about The Borrower ever since it came out in 2011, and it sounded real cute: children’s librarian befriends sweet little boy who might be gay and whose censorious, bigoted, ultra-religious parents are a drag; she ends up either liberating or kidnapping him, depending on your angle, and they have adventures together. Nice story, right? In fact, it opens with a story time reading of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, which drives home the fact that this plot has been done before. And that’s no complaint or criticism. As Makkai notes in the voice of her narrator, “you can always count on a librarian for a derivative prose style.” I can dig that little joke (and also fear it is too true).

But things went south quickly after that. Faced with the censorious mother, Lucy (the librarian/narrator) rails that she would never “defy the Constitution” by refusing to check out certain books to a ten-year-old boy at his mother’s request. Now, I sympathize with Lucy’s gut reaction and not with the nasty mother; but I think it’s only respectful to be clear on what the Constitution actually says. The First Amendment protects the right to speech, press and assembly; it most certainly does not protect the right to read anything one likes (unfortunately), and the rights of minors have been curtailed in our courts in favor of their parents’ right to decide for them, with abundant clarity. This use of the “defy the Constitution” argument was outrageous and left me reeling. From a librarian, no less!

Next Lucy notes that

I wasn’t at all concerned about (the boss) enforcing this, or even remembering it a month later. And if she tried to fire me because I’d checked out a book to a patron of the public library, I’d have so much free legal representation within ten minutes that her gin-soaked head would spin.

Well, that’s bold – and naive. If this librarian were fired for checking out a book to a ten-year-old that the child’s mother had expressing forbidden her to check out to him, I think her legal case would be in some doubt; and while it’s conceivable that the ACLU or a similar organization would take the case on, I wouldn’t bet my job on it. I’d put the chances pretty low, in fact. To think that every unjustly-fired, underpaid city employee gets “so much free legal representation within ten minutes” to make heads spin is… idealistic, at best.

And then Lucy snobs out on her profession of librarianship, except oops, it might not be fair to call her a professional because she’s non-degreed and thus in most work environments ineligible to be called a “librarian” at all (this is a subject on which there is some controversy within the field and I don’t want to enter into that now, but I think it does bear on the credibility of this novel): in reference to the cardigan she’s wearing,

I hated that I’d started to look like a librarian. This wasn’t right. In college, I’d smoked things. My first car had angry bumper stickers. I came from a long line of revolutionaries.

Now this made my head spin. Librarians are about as diverse as any other demographic group you’d care to examine, and certainly there are those cardigan-clad shh-ing grannies with buns; but there is also no dearth of tattooed, funny-looking, hipster, punk, revolutionary-as-hell librarians. And you know what? Some of us wear cardigans, too. Despite the disappointingly cartoonish view of librarians represented by these lines, they also made me wonder if Makkai realizes who her audience is for this book: I am assuming that at least in part those attracted by her basic plot would be librarians (I am one), and she just alienated us with her snobby narrator.

So. This review threatens to be as long as the tiny piece of this book that I read; I should stop. I think I’ve effectively communicated that I was disgusted by the 25 pages’ worth that I listened to, and very comfortable turning away towards greener pastures. In fact, I’m now starting a novel by Joe Hill, whose librarian character in NOS4A2 was possibly a little bit of a cariciature in the other direction – with her purple hair and all – but also closer to the librarians I know. So there.


I am not assigning this a number rating after such a brief read but clearly if I did, it would be a low number of my grumbles.

hemingWay of the Day: as an archivist

Oh my word, Liz does it again. Never was there an article more designed to make me sigh and daydream. From PRI’s The World comes

This came to me from Liz, who got it in turn from Jessamyn West (blogtwitter). A solid pedigree right there. I swoon; this is my dream job.

What The World’s Strongest Librarian is Reading

Following up on my review of Josh Hanagarne’s new book, The World’s Strongest Librarian, and my interview of the man himself: this section didn’t get printed in Shelf Awareness but I thought my readers might be interested. I certainly was! For one thing, The Black Count is on my list.

So, from our interview conversation: What the World’ Strongest Librarian is Reading.


Josh says, “I read a book almost every day. Because I can’t sleep. It’s really hard for me to go to sleep with the tics, so that’s one of the silver linings, that I get to read so much. I shouldn’t say I read a book every day, but I finish a book almost every day. I read everything from juvenile books to big giant books that I’ll finish after eight days of reading.”

What good books have you read lately?

Truth in Advertising by John Kenney. It has never been this fun to be cynical. Kenney was an insider in advertising and copyrighting in New York, and it is just the most brutal look at the superficial world of advertising, and the storytelling – I really want everybody to go read it.

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss is about Alexander Dumas’ father, who was the basis for The Count of Monte Cristo. He was a black man during the Napoleonic campaigns, and he rose to great power in a time when the world and the military were definitely ruled by whites. He winds up being imprisoned for something like 20 years, and the whole time he’s in prison his jailer is trying to poison him. Then it turns into this incredible story, if anything more swashbuckling and gigantic than The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s a crash course in the Napoleonic campaigns that doesn’t feel like a history book. It’s just a wonderful book, the wildest adventure story.

I have been rereading Mark Twain, which I always am.

I just read a University Press book, Conversations with David Foster Wallace, that was quite good. Very theory-intensive, which I don’t enjoy so much anymore, but really good since I’m a fan of Wallace’s.

I just read The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr again.

And, The Twits by Roald Dahl. I just read that with Max. Max is finally old enough to want Roald Dahl. And that has made me happier than anything.”


See more of Josh’s book reviews and related and unrelated writings at his blog, The World’s Strongest Librarian.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Josh Hanagarne

Following yesterday’s review of Josh Hanagarne’s new book, The World’s Strongest Librarian, here’s my interview with the man himself.


Josh Hanagarne: The World’s Strongest Librarian Writes

Josh Hanagarne is from Moab, Utah, and lives with his wife, Janette, and son, Max, in Salt Lake City, where he works at the beautiful main branch of the SLC Public Library. His memoir, The World’s Strongest Librarian, touches on the bizarrely various pieces of his life: his struggles with Tourette Syndrome; his journey to becoming a husband and a father; his love affair with books and libraries that would eventually lead to a career; an obsession with the gym that became a penchant for tearing phone books and full decks of cards; and a less-than-smooth lifelong relationship with the Mormon Church, where he still finds family and friends but less faith than he once held.

worldsstrongest

Your book includes a lot of personal and painful history that belongs not only to you but to your wife and family as well. What was the process for sharing those personal details?

It was hard. During the first draft I didn’t think too much about how people were going to react. When I started going through on the second draft, I started showing things to Janette or to my mom and asking, is this accurate? Is this something you’re okay with having in here? Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. Whenever anybody was mildly uncomfortable with something, I just took it out–nothing of real consequence. I guess when you write a memoir, you choose which periods of your life you’re going to represent, and then you choose which episodes best represent those periods. If you’re a normal person, sometimes that means you’ll look good and sometimes it means you’ll look bad. So that wasn’t fun, but it was honest, I think, without being tedious and self-flagellating.

I’ve always used humor kind of in self-defense, because I knew if I could make people laugh I could make them focus on something other than my tics. I think this book is kind of sad, and I think a lot of humor is rooted in something sad. I believe Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain both talked towards the ends of their lives about having various forms of irony fatigue, because humor was mainly a self-defensive tool for them. I think in any book where you get to pick and choose what you put in, the sadder stuff’s going to get sadder, and the funny stuff’s probably going to get funnier.

You’ve included Dewey classification numbers under each chapter heading. Do you think this resonates with the general population, or mostly just librarians?

I don’t know. I think most people, even if they don’t get it, will probably be intrigued. Some people have pointed out that they don’t all work out exactly the way capital-“L” Librarians think they should, to which I will just say, the numbers do exactly what I want them to do. I think it’s eye-catching. I didn’t necessarily think of it as being gimmicky, because it really does tie in thematically with each chapter. What I really like about it is that you can kind of see what’s coming and yet sometimes not have any clue how one thing will lead to the next.

Tell us about the process of writing this book: When did you write? Were you still working at the library?

This is probably going to disappoint a lot of aspiring writers who put off writing until they have hours of free time every day, but I don’t think I ever sat down and wrote for more than 15 minutes at a time. I just can’t; the tics won’t let me. I wrote whenever I could. I’d guess I rarely wrote more than half an hour total in a day. I do write really fast. I found out that, at least now, I’m the sort of writer who has to make a gigantic mess and then clean it up, because if I start trying to anticipate all the editorial questions on the fly, I just freeze up and I don’t get anything done. So I wrote a lot more to get to this book than I probably could have, if I were another writer. I wrote the first draft totally on my own and then I sent it to my editor, and things had just been going so well that I kind of assumed, yeah, my first draft is surely anyone else’s fourth or fifth. Then my editor sent it back and said, you’ve got to get rid of 120 pages. We can’t even talk yet. Fix this. Which was a great lesson to learn, and not an easy one. But editing was really kind of fun, because Megan [Newman] is really the right editor for me. I think it took three total drafts between us, but about eight on my part. I learned that it takes a hideous amount of work to appear spontaneous. But it was a lot of fun. The shortest way to answer your question is: I wrote every day, I only wrote for a few minutes at a time, and I just kept going. A big part of it is being willing to show up.

Was the writing process cathartic for you?

If this book hadn’t come about, I think I’d probably still be going through the motions in church, trying not to make waves. The ideas I’ve gotten from church have everything to do with my relationship to my body, and the explanations I thought I owed for my life. In writing the book, I realized, I’m actually going to have to deal with this. So I got into the sticky situation of writing a book about how much I love my family and yet gently distancing myself from the church, knowing that that would be painful for my family. That was the biggest catharsis: realizing that I was going to have to deal with that shift in faith. Spending so much time thinking about that, and trying to word it correctly, is what taught me what I actually do think about it all.

Would you say that you had a message or even a cause to communicate with this book, related to Tourette’s, or libraries, or anything else?

I’m not much of a crusader. But when I go speak to groups of people with disabilities, or their parents, or special educators, the reaction I get is so humbling and overwhelming. If people I speak to are actually getting out of this story what they tell me they are, I knew I really needed to do this book as well as I can. So that it can go be me in all the places I can’t be. There’s definitely no downside to spreading the word about Tourette’s. This story seems to inspire some people without me ever needing to claim I can inspire anyone. As far as libraries, obviously this whole book is my love letter to books and libraries. That’s not necessarily what I intended, but for me to write about myself honestly, that’s the only thing that could have happened.

What do you most want people to know about you that’s not in your book?

To entertain my son occasionally in the morning when I put my pants on, I will hold them up at about waist height and I will try to jump into my pants. So I jump all the way up in the air and tuck my knees in and if I do it right, my feet come through the pants and I’m dressed. And if it goes wrong it goes really badly wrong. And about one of every 10 times I can put my pants on this way. Once in a while. You know, one out of 10 might be optimistic.


This interview originally ran on April 9, 2013 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

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