Monday, April 29, 2013

The World's Strongest Librarian

by Josh Hanagarne
Gotham    2013
288 p.     Memoir

I can see it now. The librarian is doing her best to hand sell the book, The World's Strongest Librarian.: "Well, it's a memoir by a  6'7" Mormon librarian who lifts weights and has Tourette Syndrome."  Uh-huh! That's going to sell it! 

In the past three years, I have read and blogged about more than 30 memoirs, but reading Josh Hanagarne's inspiring story makes me want to know him, and not just his story. It is my favorite book thus far this year. I was compelled to read Josh's story (can I call him Josh--I feel like I know him so well) when I noticed the structure of the book.  He uses Dewey library classification numbers to outline what he is going to discuss in each chapter. Then he tells a disgustingly humorous incident from his library work followed by narrative from his life story. It is poignant. It is extremely funny.  Somehow it all fits together into a splendid whole.

My knowledge of Tourette Syndrome is limited. I once had a second grade student who we feared had Tourettes, but he moved on to a special school and we never saw him again. Josh describes his condition thus: "One of the reasons I work here (the library) is because I have extreme Tourette Syndrome. The kind with verbal tics, sometimes loud ones, the kind that draws warning looks. Working in this library is the ultimate test for someone who literally can't sit still. Who can't shush himself. A test of willpower, of patience, and occasionally, of the limits of human absurdity." So as we read along, we learn all about Tourette Syndrome, how it was diagnosed in Josh, and the extreme measures he has developed to cope with it. That in itself is reason to read the book. But the book is not another disease memoir. 

My knowledge of the Mormon faith is also limited. I learned a great deal about Mormonism from reading about Josh's upbringing, his mission, his wife's faith, and his questions. This I especially appreciated, because I have come to realize that questioning is part of religious belief, and frankly, I like to read about people who don't just blindly follow a religious path. He writes about his questions and the peace he has made with his lack of "religious" faith, although he continues to exhibit a great deal of "spiritual" faith.

I didn't know much about bodybuilding and absolutely nothing about kettle bells, which Josh took up to try to alleviate the stress of the Tourette Syndrome. I am all for finding natural ways to alleviate debilities if at all possible, and I was interested in learning about how bodybuilding helped him. I loved the story about his going to work out with a famous bodybuilder in North Dakota. Darkly funny.

One thing I do know a lot about is family, and I particularly enjoyed reading about Josh's wonderful family. His gracious understanding of how important family is to him is evident throughout the book, but especially as he struggles with his Mormon faith. Mormons believe that family will be together throughout eternity, and makes his struggle with religion all the more dramatic.

Most of all, I know about libraries. I loved all the reasons why Josh became a librarian and why he stays a public librarian. A woman recently told me that her husband doesn't like to go to our wonderful public library because there are so many homeless people there. Josh talks about the reasons why the library serves ALL the population of the community. Some of the stories are hysterically funny and some are thought provoking. My favorite is about how Josh came upon a drunk vomiting in a waste can in the library stacks. He asks if he can help him to the bathroom. The drunk responds, "No. I'm fine here!" I could just see it happening. Another favorite is when he was asked why the books about religion weren't in the fiction section of the library. That was one question I had never thought of. I was reminded again of how librarians are among the greatest spokespeople for freedom of speech. He says, "If you believe censorship is poison, here lies paradise. We have sections on anti-Mormonism, anti-Semitism, anti-anti-Semitism, anti-atheism, anti-god, anti-feminism, pro gay . . . there's something to offend everybody."

 Josh Hanagarne's story, The World's Strongest Librarian, is totally unique. You have never read this story before. To say that it is inspiring is not to do it justice, because it is complex and utterly human. I could just go on and on. Thank you Josh for telling your story. I have been moved and inspired. One reviewer said, “Everything about this book is big: certainly it is the story of a 6′ 7″ librarian with Tourette’s, but it is also the quest for how we know, how we feel, and how we love… without reservation. I found it impossible to put down; save a day to read this.”

Josh Hanagarne's website: He also has a book club that he runs from his website.
This is the video introduction to the book. You can meet Josh Hanagarne here:

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Sunshine When She's Gone

by Thea Goodman

Henry Holt and Company, 2013
228 pages         Fiction

My daughter called me the other day, "Mom, can you come over? I just need a moment." I empathize with her because she copes daily with a toddler's incessant chatter and an infant clamoring for the breast every hour or so. I trotted over to her house to offer some relief. She thrust the baby in my arms, grabbed the car keys, and said, "I'll be back in an hour." Sometimes, parenting is just too much. 

Certainly that is the case for Veronica and John in Thea Goodman's debut novel, The Sunshine When She's Gone. She writes: "Sleep--for both of them--had become a precious commodity, worthy of fetish." Veronica had a very difficult delivery and even though baby Clara is now six months old, Veronica is still deeply depressed and John keeps trying to make things better. One morning, in an effort to allow Veronica to sleep in for a while, he takes Clara out of the apartment, and before he knows it, the two of them are on a plane for Barbados, a favorite vacation spot of the couple's. When Veronica wakes up after a lovely night's sleep, she discovers them gone, and she has no idea where they went. 

In alternating chapters, one parent in New York, the other in Barbados, the story evolves. Veronica thinks that John and the baby have gone to John's mother's house out in the suburbs. John tries to call but they keep missing each other. The reader is both sympathetic to their plight and horrified at the decisions that they make while they are apart. Veronica finds herself doing things that she hasn't done for months, some appropriate and some not so appropriate. We are appalled, too, at John's behavior. No one is acting admirably.

Many reviewers have called the observations of parenting in the book "astute." That is a good word to describe it because certainly every parent wants on occasion to just leave. But herein lies the mystery of parenting. Veronica desperately needs some relief, but the moment she doesn't have Clara with her, she longs to be with her.  Meanwhile, John, in an attempt to do the right thing for the baby that he has so rudely abducted, is searching all over the island for goat's milk because that is all Clara's tummy can tolerate. This temporary separation helps both of them find the essence of what they had lost in Clara's difficult birth. 

One reviewer I read suggests that Goodman lets the couple off lightly because in the end, they forgive each other and life returns to the normal chaos of family life. I think, however, they both came to the conclusion that rather than abandon the idea of family, they are willing to accept the vagrant weekend as a crazy sleep-deprived anomaly.

On a side note, I was about driven crazy by the title of the book, The Sunshine When She's Gone, because my musician head kept singing the song over and over all the while the book sat on my desk and beside my bed. I finally looked up the words to the song, took them to the piano and banged out the song, singing at the top of my voice. Once that was done, I felt better, and the song stopped ringing through my brain. The words, by the way, are completely appropriate to the book.

Ain't no sunshine when she's gone,
It' s not warm when she's away.
Ain't no sunshine when she's gone,
And she's always gone too long
Anytime she goes away.
Wonder this time where shes gone
Wonder if she's gonna stay
Ain't no sunshine when shes gone
And this house just ain't no home
Anytime she goes away

Here is Thea Goodman's website:
The Sunshine When She's Gone appeared as a winter "book of the week" at

Monday, April 8, 2013

When Can You Start? How to Ace the Interview and Win the Job

by Paul Freiberger
Career Upshift Productions, 2013
229 p.      Nonfiction
The Shortlist

A young woman I know is looking for a new job and returned from an interview a few weeks ago thinking that she had done a great job selling herself to the interviewer. She didn't get the job, but before she interviews for the next job, I want her to read When Can You Start? Freiberger has filled his book with practical, to the point advice--Everything you really wanted or needed to know about how to get the job. 

I particularly liked the information in the chapter about researching the opportunity before going for the interview. He reminds people that you can never over prepare for an interview. I watched my son prepare for a big interview as a toy designer for a major toy company a few months ago. He poured over their design manuals and the company history. He wandered the aisles of a toy store making sure he was completely familiar with the company's product line. When he was flown in for the interview, he was totally prepared. I was impressed. I was also impressed that he turned the offer down because it was going to be too difficult for his wife's career.

The chapter called The Only Question You Must Be Able to Answer is probably the most important
chapter in the book. Freiberger says that in some form or other the question "Tell Me About Yourself" shows up in every interview, and answering that question correctly is crucial to getting the job. He offers all the best ways to answer that crucial question. Freiberger says, "Take charge of a job interview right away. You may only get one chance to impress so be attentive to the events leading up to the interview."

I would recommend When Can You Start? to anyone beginning the interviewing process, whether you are a recent university graduate, someone reentering the job market, or someone seeking to make a job change. 

Freiberger's website:

Friday, April 5, 2013

Saturday Night Widows

by Becky Aikman
Crown, 2013
337 pages     Memoir

Six women embark on a journey of discovery that ends with a trip to the exotic land of Morocco. They toast their journey, "To our dead husbands. We wouldn't be here if they hadn't died."

Becky Aikman, a New York newspaper reporter, was widowed in her forties when her husband Bernie died of cancer. Casting around for a way to deal with the overwhelming grief, she joined a traditional support group for widows only to find that the group was bringing her emotionally down even further. There had to be something better, she thought. She set out to study the human response to losing a partner and report about it. Her memoir, Saturday Night Widows, is the result of the journey.

Eventually, she formed a group of six widows in their 30s through 50s who met on Saturday nights once a month for a year to support each other. She really had no expectations for the group at first, because everyone seemed so different--the only thing they had in common was their widowhood. Rather quickly, they gained confidence in each other and supported each other as they moved beyond grief to joyful new lives. Interspersed throughout the narrative of the group process is Aikman's own story, of her beloved husband's slow death from cancer. The author briefly tells the stories of each of the other women, although we don't come to know them quite as well. By the time Aikman wrote Saturday Night Widows, she had happily remarried and as the book closes, she gives a summary of how the lives of each of the women had evolved. 

Although we get a good look at the kind of pain that comes from losing a partner, the book is a marvelous affirmation that there can be joy after loss, happiness after devastation, growth and renewal. Aiken shows that there is a natural inclination of people to trust each other and support each other. Each of these women was interested in moving forward with her life, and that made all the difference.  She says, "I hadn't been looking for a bunch of docile widows, and I certainly didn't get them...they were beginning to flourish, rediscovering themselves." 

Of course, I couldn't help but insert my own story into Saturday Night Widows. I wished that I had found such a great group of friends when I was a young widow. When Lee died, we were both 41 years old and we had three children--15, 11, and 2. It had been a very long illness, so much of my grieving happened before he died. At one point, I had the very clear realization that the children and I were going to be alright, no matter what happened.  After Lee died, I had very little time for grief; I had to create a new life for myself and my children quickly. An older woman once told me that even though her husband had died 20-years before and she had remarried, occasionally she would be overcome with grief. 

I remember telling the story of Lee's illness and death over and over in my mind so that I wouldn't forget it and could tell it to the children if they needed to hear it. When I decided to write the story down a few years ago, all the old grief welled up and I had to quit. I think that now that I have read Becky Aikman's story, I can begin to write about it again.

Despite the subject, Saturday Night Widows is a book most every woman can relate to in their own lives, and the story of women reinventing themselves is a universal one. Very inspiring. The reviewer in the Washington Post says, "The spirit of Saturday Night Widows bursts the stereotype of glum, mournful widowhood with the energy of a pent-up thirst for life. It carries the real sorrow and pain of a terrible human experience, but it also moves relentlessly and joyfully into the current of ongoing adventure."

 You might also be interested in the memoir of Abby Rike, Working It Out. Rike's husband and children were killed in a car accident. The book is the story of her coming back to life.