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
A cloudburst was already waiting to challenge us at the top of the ridge. From the bottom of Meriwether Canyon we could both see and hear it making preparations for a joust with us. As we tried not to fall backwards to where we started in the canyon, we could hear the storm rumble and paw the ground. When we neared the top, it tried to beat us back by splintering shafts of lightning on gigantic rocks. There was a lone tree near the top, only one, and in case we had any foolish ideas of taking refuge under it a bolt of lightning took aim and split it apart; it went down as if it had been hit by a battle-ax. Trying to reach the rocks, we were held motionless and vertical in our tracks by the wind. Only when the wind lessened for a moment could we move – then we fell forward. With the lessening of the wind the rain became cold and even heavier and forced us to retreat from the battlefield on top. The rain fell on us like a fortified wall falling. By the time we reached the bottom of Meriwether, we were shivering and demoralized and my brother-in-law probably already had pneumonia.
All this was like a demonstration arranged to let us know that Mann Gulch had power over earth, air, and water, as well as fire. As the wind continued to lessen, the rain increased and fell straight down. It was solid now everywhere. It knocked out the motor in our borrowed boat, and we couldn’t get it started again; after a while we didn’t try anymore, and it took several hours to pole and paddle our way back to Hilger Landing. My brother-in-law was seriously sick before we got there; he would never go back to Mann Gulch. So for some time Mann Gulch was mine alone, if I wanted it, and for some time I left it to the elements. I turned to the archives because I knew they would be dry and no wind would be there and the air would be the same air the stacks had been built around and nothing but a book or two had been moved since. The signs would demand “Silence” and even the silence would be musty, and for a time anything musty had an appeal.
I am seriously tempted to leave this passage to stand alone. Below I will make a few notes toward a closer reading of it; but feel free to skip my little words and reread Maclean and go on with your day.
Or, if you want my thoughts:
Here Maclean relates his first attempt to visit Mann Gulch, scene of the decades-old tragedy he wants to write a book about. It is a geographically remote and wild area, not easily reached. He refers several times in Young Men and Fire and in his related notes and letters (in The Norman Maclean Reader) to the “truculent universe,” reluctant to give up its secrets regarding these events. This first visit to the spot itself clearly informs his feeling of the universe’s truculence. Perhaps, he thinks, the archives will be more revealing. (As it turns out, they weren’t, especially.)
These paragraphs are both easy to read, and dense with description. You can feel the weather beating through your computer screen, can’t you? Look at the action verbs, the militarism, the agency attributed to the inanimate storm. It is waiting to challenge; preparing to joust; it rumbles and paws the ground. It tries to beat us back; it takes aim and disabuses us of foolish ideas. The top of the gulch is a battlefield; rain was like a fortified wall falling.
There is comedy: when the wind stopped we were able to move again – we fell forward. (Can you see the slapstick even in this dramatic moment? Does it make you smile?)
All of this was a demonstration – and note Maclean’s reference to the concept behind the title of this book, the elemental forces of earth, air, water, fire (and young men).
In this round of battle, Maclean concedes that the Gulch has won; he retreats to the archives, where the librarians among us are amused and charmed by the air the stacks had been built around, and the appeal of mustiness after such a run-in with the wild outdoors.
I again encourage you to read this amazing book.
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.
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.
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.
Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.
My editor recently asked me if I’d like to put together my first Maximum Shelf for them, and said she had just the book in mind for me: The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family, by Josh Hanagarne. (My father found this a hilarious expression of what my editor thinks of me. I’ll let you work that one out. I haven’t.) I was thrilled; and I loved the book. Because this would make for an extra long blog post, I’ve split the Max Shelf issue into two posts for you, so please enjoy my review today and my interview with the gracious & funny Josh tomorrow.
Josh Hanagarne, blogger at The World’s Strongest Librarian, “might be the only person whose first three-hundred-pound bench press was accompanied by the Recorded Books production of Don Quixote.” This is just one of his remarkable singularities. A gentle giant who tears phone books for fun, at 6’7″ he tends to catch the eye at the Salt Lake City Public Library, even when his Tourette Syndrome is not acting up. His memoir explores these contradictions and oddities, and his remarkable journey from idyllic childhood to painfully jerky young adulthood to a contented family and work life.
Hanagarne had a happy childhood, beloved by his mother, an incorrigible prankster and devout Mormon, and his devoted, irreverent bear of a father. He grew up in libraries, a passionate bookworm disturbed only by the tics that began in first grade but would go undiagnosed until high school (although his father suspected Tourette’s from the beginning). By young adulthood, they were not only embarrassing but violent and debilitating. He would eventually suffer a hernia from the force of his involuntary shouting tics, and his larger movements resulted in injury to himself and chaos in his immediate surroundings. After high school he spent years trying numerous cures, in and out of college, working various jobs and struggling with depression. Lifting weights at the gym stilled the tics somewhat, and for a while he got regular Botox injections in his vocal cords to quiet the shouts and whoops. During that time he met and married a lovely Mormon folklorist named Janette. For the first eight months of marriage, he couldn’t speak to her above a whisper.
Although deeply in love, the atmosphere of Josh and Janette’s story early in their marriage remains clouded. For years they try to get pregnant. Janette suffers two miscarriages and they are harshly rejected by the Mormon Church as adoptive parents. Josh continues to tussle with Tourette’s. For a short time, he finds a position as assistant special educator quite satisfying, not least because his tics become unremarkable in a room full of special needs. But he soon leaves that job, because he seeks challenge: crucially, he aspires to overcome Tourette’s, to beat his tics into submission. Pondering what might present the greatest challenge to a man who can’t keep quiet, Josh is drawn to the quietest place he knows, a place that has always offered succor and delight. He gets a job as a clerk in the library and begins a master’s program in library science. And a key piece of marital bliss is finally achieved when Janette delivers a healthy baby boy named Max.
Josh continues to battle Tourette’s in the gym, discovers kettlebell lifting along the way, and makes a new friend in Adam Glass, a former Air Force tech sergeant and strongman: he bends wrenches and horseshoes and tears decks of cards and phone books. Josh’s story takes an inspiring turn as the twitchy librarian and the foul-mouthed strongman gradually develop a friendship; as Adam helps Josh build strength, together they also begin to understand and subdue the tics. He finds Adam a little strange, and the explanation for his social awkwardness is also what makes him the perfect mentor for overcoming Tourette’s: Adam is autistic.
The adult Josh Hanagarne who relates his story is content and stable, happily married, thrilled to be a father to four-year-old Max, and working full-time at the Salt Lake City Public Library. As he relates his stranger-than-fiction story, he intersperses present-day anecdotes from a workplace that he wryly notes is rife with strange and occasionally smelly patrons and events. He muses eloquently and powerfully about the role of libraries in society, and their future possibilities. Throughout his life and this book, Josh struggles with his Mormon faith, as he sets off on the expected mission and faces myriad challenges in school, work, marriage and parenthood. In telling a story about family, church and Tourette Syndrome, he always circles back to libraries and to books, in many charming literary references. And always central to Josh’s story is his love of family. From his loving parents and exceptionally close siblings through the clear delight Josh finds in marriage and fatherhood, he stresses the inestimable gift of a loving family.
Josh’s memoir is thoughtful, heartfelt, often hilarious– and unsparingly honest. He is not proud of every moment in his own past, but he shares nonetheless. The image of the man today who wrote this book and who works in a large branch of a public library in a large city is that of a serious yet funny, mature, loving family man, and this image is only partly at odds with the earlier, less secure young man we come to know in these pages. The younger Josh was unsure and unstable, and the author is more comfortable in his own skin. But both have tics, and stories to tell.
Tomorrow: I interview The World’s Strongest Librarian.
Full disclosure: This book was sent to me by the author, who very astutely offered me dog treats with it for my two babes and therefore got in the door easily. Great trick, Amber!
Liberty Cutter is a librarian recently returned to her hometown of Shipsfeather, Ohio, having taken the position of public library Director. She’s there to learn more about her own history and that of the town; ever since her mother abandoned her at age 5 in the children’s section of the local library, she’s had precious little information about her background and family. (She was raised by four law librarian aunts who apparently lacked any sense of fun.) Shipsfeather is a strange place: no one in town wants to talk about the past. As the book opens, Liberty dashes off to a massive fire that destroys her library. City officials are less than helpful, but she ends up reopening in an beautiful old school building, with the help of the friendly townspeople and her excellent staff. It turns out that her new library building was already occupied! Underground from the old Academy lives a pack of dogshifters, who it turns out are humankind’s original librarians, and are pleasantly disposed towards Liberty. And it’s a good thing, because the werewolves are the enemies of librarians everywhere – book burners, no less! I’ll mostly quit here for the sake of spoilers, but: Liberty makes new friends, and the library gets a fresh and healthier new start.
The first in a series, Released is great fun, if you’re a fan of books, dogs, or libraries (preferably all three). It does rely heavily on the reader’s appreciation of these framing elements, but this doesn’t concern me overmuch, because I doubt many people pick up such a book who aren’t. Shipsfeather is full of library references: “thank Dewey,” Liberty thinks, when things go right; certain characters talk in “Dewey-speak” (substituting Dewey numbers for nouns). This idyllic small town has far more enthusiastic librarians and library patrons than seems realistic, but again, we’re happy to forgive. The dogshifters in the basement are named and described by breed (and their country of origin plays an important role, too), in another instance of casual indulgence in our mutual interests. The chihuahua is, of course, my favorite character (and he shares a name with a major Mexican beer!).
There is plenty to like: the fantasy is clever and cute, the characters are likeable in their eccentricities, and again, there’s plenty of dog- and library-play. There is some romance, of the swooning and weak-kneed, he’s-so-handsome-and-strong variety. It’s all “clean.” I could make a few criticisms, too. The plot and fantasy realm is not terribly complex; this is a light-hearted romp, not a world-building feat. The dialogue can be a little tedious and unreal. Phrases like “even so” don’t feel right in dialogue, and likewise the lack of contractions: “I will do everything I can” in informal speech. The humor is heavy on the puns – not a problem for every reader, but noteworthy.
Released is easy-reading fun, not crafted in high literary style but a worthwhile jaunt. I enjoyed it, despite a few stylistic flaws, and found myself thinking about the sweet characters and the sweet little world of Shipsfeather as I fell asleep one night this week; and they made me smile. And that’s always worth a few points.
Thanks, Amber, for sending me a copy of your book.
Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.
I have discovered a strange and wonderful new book: a memoir by a Mormon strongman librarian with Tourette’s Syndrome.
Today the library was hot, humid, and smelly. It was like working inside a giant pair of glass underpants without any leg holes to escape through. The building moved. It breathed. It seethed with bodies and thoughts moving in and out of people’s heads. Mostly out.
To me, this beginning establishes the author’s voice, which will be evocative as well as irreverent. One of Hanagarne’s strengths is that he communicates often serious content with a wry twist that sometimes had me giggle out loud. Aside from which, the opening setting of this book is a library, and I am a sucker for that, as I bet are some of you.
I’m sorry to tell you that this book won’t be out until May! But be sure to look out for it then.
This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.
Coworker Liz does it again. I have long been a Mozilla Firefox user, but (gulp) am finally switching to Google Chrome for my internet browser, and here’s why: Chrome’s new Library Extension for Amazon.
The concept is this: when you look up a book on Amazon, you have the option – once you have this extension set up – to see at the same time whether that same book is available at your local library.* For instance (after buzzing right through Lost in a Good Book), I am looking for the third Thursday Next book by Jasper Fforde:
And I would normally have two tabs open in my browser, so that I could search Amazon and my local library at the same time. But now:
Look at that. My local HPL has me covered – and all in one browser tab. Thanks, HPL! And thanks, Google!
Now, it remains to be seen whether this will continue to fly for Amazon, an organization which likes its profits. If Amazon were to suspect any drop in business I imagine they’d find a way to keep libraries off their website. But we can hope – and enjoy it while we can.
*Once your local library is set up in the extension. Ours wasn’t, so Liz emailed “the guy” who does such things and the next day, there we were. So it might be just that easy – at least while the traffic remains manageable for “the guy”, which, I have no idea.
library visit: the Julia Ideson building; and Some Recollections of a Western Ranchman by William French
My journey began thusly: having decided to visit the Gila National Forest with Husband this summer, I was doing some research on the website (above) relating to our trip: camping, weather, trails, maps, sights to see, what to expect. I was very pleased to find a suggested reading list (scroll to the bottom). Like many avid readers, I often like to do some reading relating to a place I plan to visit.
This reading list consists of some travel books, the Leopold which I was already interested in, and others that I either began searching for or decided I didn’t need. And then there was this one: Some Recollections of a Western Ranchman, by William French. I took a look at my local library’s catalog, without much luck; and then I looked on Amazon and figured out why: this book is long out of print, with used copies running well upwards of $100. Well, I don’t think I want the book that badly; I don’t really know if I want it at all. But I’m interested, because the Houston Public Library does house a copy in the Texas Room at the Houston Metropolitan Resource Center at the Julia Ideson Building.
This had me intrigued enough to pay a visit. I hadn’t been to the Ideson Building in a few years, since I was a library student and toured with my mother. It’s a lovely space. For 50 years, from 1926 to 1976, this building served as Houston’s central library; its namesake was Houston’s head librarian from 1904-1945. In 1976, the Jones Building was opened on the same block, and today that’s our main library, and the one I grew up with; it’s some 5-6 stories tall, and I grew up with the children’s library in the basement, although now it gets a sunnier treatment (following a recent renovation). The Jones Building is, in my opinion, a fine library in its own right, but the Ideson Building is really lovely. Please do go check out some beautiful photographs (and renderings) provided by The Julia Ideson Library Preservation Partners. You can read more about the building and very recently completed and so well-deserved renovation here.
So what of the book? Well, I entered the Texas Room, which bibliophiles would recognize as a classic reading room in the days before Kindle. I was asked to lock my purse in a locker – no pens, water bottles, or theft opportunities allowed! – and then I waited in this lovely space while a librarian fetched the book I wanted from the closed stacks. There were accountant-style lamps on the tables, but I sat near a window and didn’t need one. I was given William French’s Recollections, in two volumes, bound in what I assume was a custom book box, and I gave it a look.
As it turns out, the book itself was not the most impressive part of this visit. I spent a little time with it, and encountered a few funny or poignant anecdotes. But each volume being some 300 pages long, I knew I wasn’t interested in making the commitment with a book I couldn’t carry around myself. It is a memoir by a Dublin-born man who traveled to the American Southwest in the late 1800′s and had adventures there, and I read about ranching, local politics, tracking and hunting bears, frontier weddings, and more; apparently French was a friend to the Wild Bunch including Butch Cassidy, which is part of what has made his memoir of some enduring interest. (Not so much enduring interest, however, that this book is still in print.) I think it has some entertainment value, but is not so well-written or sensational to make for popular reading; clearly it has historical value to the time and place it represents, which is why it’s on the Gila’s list of suggested reading. How it ended up in the Texas Room is a little mysterious, as the librarian I asked said that the collection mostly covers not Texas, but more specifically Houston-related resources; I asked how this book (which mostly covers New Mexico) ended up there, and she guessed that perhaps its donor was somehow related to Houston. No worries, of course; I’m glad this hard-to-find book was available to me to touch and read in such a lovely setting.