Thursday, October 8, 2015

Review: The World's Strongest Librarian

Josh Hanagarne has a great sense of humor and a deep love of books and libraries. That is enough to predispose me to like this book, and like this book I did. In this memoir Hanagarne tells his story of growing up with Tourette Syndrome and living in a Mormon family. From the time he was a small child Hanagarne was severely affected by Tourette tics. It took years for him to be diagnosed, and his family was somewhat in denial about his condition. As an adult, Hanagarne finally found some relief from his symptoms by training as a strong man, taking up extreme weightlifting. He funnels his love of books into a career as a librarian. 

This is a fine example of the fact that a reasonably happy story can make for a good memoir. Hanagarne certainly suffered from his Tourette Syndrome, but he has many positives in his life. He grew up in a functional and close-knit family, he has a rewarding career, and a unique and impressive hobby. This memoir is a story of Tourette Syndrome, but it is also a meditation on the importance of libraries, and a story of a man's struggle to make sense of his faith. Hanagarne is heavily invested in the importance of libraries. At one point Hanagarne notes that every time someone walks into a library there is the potential for their mind to be expanded. That idea has stuck with me ever since I finished the book. I also learned quite a bit about Tourette Syndrome from this book. I had never really considered the issue of repetitive stress injuries- having the same tics over and over isn't just socially awkward, it's hard on the body. 

This was a really engaging memoir. I wasn't all that interested in the technical stuff about weightlifting (and there's a section of the book that gets pretty deeply into strongman training), but overall this was a really interesting read. Hanagarne seems like a great guy, with an interesting story.

Josh Hanagarne: The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family (Gotham, 2013)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Review: The Murder Room (Adam Dalgliesh, #12)

P.D James creates a world around her mysteries, probably better than any other mystery writer I know. Such is the case here, when rocks the DuPayne Museum. A small, eccentric museum dedicated to the history of the interwar period, the DuPayne's showpiece is a gallery dedicated to period murders. Full of macabre displays and artifacts, "The Murder Room" appears to have provided inspiration for a serial killer. People in and around the museum are being killed in the same manner as the most notable murders displayed in the gallery. Dalgliesh and his team try to discover the killer as the body count rises.

This is a mystery with a complex plot. It has many moving parts, and numerous richly drawn characters. Set in the waning fall, the atmosphere is appropriately dark and gloomy. I figured out who the murderer was, and I suspected why, which is unusual for me with James's books. There were more direct clues to murderer and motive in this one. In sum, an excellent mystery with a richly-drawn atmosphere.

P.D. James, The Murder Room (Vintage, 2003) ISBN: 1400076099 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Review: All Good Things

This book chronicles the author's move from Paris to French Polynesia When her husband is transferred to Tahiti, the couple moved to the island of Mo'orea, a real-world tropical paradise. Much of the culture shock that Turnbull experiences is the sort that one might expect: life is more colorful, time is looser. Turnbull's descriptions are vivid, and I learned a great deal about French Polynesia. Many islands comprise the country, and Turnbull travels quite a bit, exploring the various island groups. I found myself looking at maps and researching the places she visited on the internet, to see photos of the places she described. Some of the Polynesian islands are exceedingly remote- essentially skinny coral rings surrounding large lagoons. The geography is fascinating, and throughout the book I thought quite a bit about what it must be like to live on a small island, out in the middle of the ocean, so far away from large land masses.

Turnbull's time in Polynesia is heavily shaped by her desire to have children and her difficulties conceiving. Even before her move the author had been undergoing fertility treatments. Living on a island blooming with life and color and approaching her fortieth birthday, the desire to conceive looms large.

Location is everything in this book. While it covers three different places (Paris, Polynesia, and Australia), the most interesting parts were most definitely those on the islands. By the time the family had moved to Australia, I found myself getting somewhat bored. The descriptions of Tahiti and the surrounding islands are delightful. That's the reason to read this book.

Sarah Turnbull, All Good Things: From Paris to Tahiti, Life and Longing (Gotham, 2013) ISBN: 1592408680 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Review: Death of Yesterday (Hamish Macbeth, #29)

Although I seem to be in a minority in this opinion, I like the direction that Beaton is taking this series. It's moving towards longer mysteries, that is, those that take more than a week to solve. These aren't necessarily "closed" mysteries, the way the earlier ones in the series were- they don't involve a specific group of suspects in a particular location, such as guests at a hotel. I appreciate that some signs of modern technology have entered Lochdubh. At least now characters have laptops and mobile phones. The total isolation was skirting the boundaries of the absurd.

In this case Hamish investigates a woman's claim of rape, only to find her body turn up weeks later. Investigating the case takes him to the continent and back. I'm not entirely sure why this book is called Death of Yesterday. I can come up with a few very tangential metaphorical possibilities, but usually the titles in this series are obvious. I'm getting sick of Hamish's women problems. Really, Beaton needs to to do something about this. I'm sick of watching Hamish treat women badly and then whine about being single. There needs to be movement on this front! The mysteries in this series have developed, but Hamish's personal life has not.

M.C. Beaton, Death of Yesterday (Grand Central, 2013) ISBN: 145552252X 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Review: Riding the Bus with My Sister

I expected to like this book much better than I did. This is the story of Rachel Simon and her developmentally-disabled sister, Beth. Beth spends her days riding city transit buses. In an effort to become closer to her sister Rachel decides to spend time with her, riding the bus. Doing so forces Rachel to come to terms with all of her complicated emotions regarding her sister and the rest of the family. The Simon family certainly has a troubled past. The girls were abandoned by their mother. Really, though, the book is mostly about the adult relationship between the two. And at the end of the day, I didn't find that relationship as interesting as I expected to. Basically, Rachel discovers that having intellectual disabilities didn't prevent her sister from having a full range of feelings and behaviors. A big part of this book seems to be Rachel coming to terms with the fact that it's okay if her relationship with Beth is not all sunshine and rainbows. More interesting was Rachel's effort to come to terms with the philosophy of self-determination, which guides the care of Beth and others like her. Beth is allowed to make her own decisions, even if they aren't very good ones. The ethical issues surrounding this are interesting, even if they aren't the main purpose of this book. And that ended up being the main flaw of the book for me. The issues became more interesting than the people living them.

Rachel Simon, Riding the Bus with My Sisiter: A True Life Journey (Plume, 2003) ISBN: 0452284554 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Review: From a Sealed Room

This book was so very dull- nearly 400 pages of small print of people whining and having FEELINGS. The book focuses on three women living in Jerusalem: Tami- an unhappy, emotionally unavailable housewife, Maya, her American niece, and Shifra, an elderly Holocaust survivor. Everyone has issues. Tami's relationship with her son is deteriorating. Shifra has never really found her place in Jerusalem. Maya is concurrently running away from and trying repair her poor relationship with her mother. There's not very very much plot in this book. Maya travels from New York to study abroad in the hopes of finally proving her worth to her mother. She falls in mad, youthful love with Gil, a miserable, abusive, self-important artist. Maya drifts away from her friends and university and gets wrapped up in Gil's wants and needs. Shifra suffers from dementia and lives downstairs from Gil and Maya. She begins to hallucinate and think that Maya has arrived to bring her redemption. Meanwhile, Maya also meets her long-lost Israeli family members, including Tami. Honestly, that's about it. The story has little resolution, and there's not enough plot to sustain more than 300 pages. What the book does do well is describe Israel- it's environment and problems. The reader can really feel the sun, the grit, the sand of the Israeli desert. Kadish also illustrates the divergent desires of fundamentalists and moderates. Ultimately, while Kadish can write beautiful prose, there's too many tangents and not enough story here.

Rachel Kadish, From a Sealed Room (Berkley Trade, 2000) ISBN: 042517641X 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Review: Colour Scheme

A rather suspicious and unbelievable set of circumstances finds Inspector Alleyn in New Zealand. In the midst of the thermal springs of northern New Zealand, a rather unpleasant character meets his death by drowning in a pool of boiling mud. The blundering Claire family owns the local resort, and they are well in debt to Maurice Questing, the unfortunate victim. Many wanted Questing dead.

At first I found the setting of this mystery to be quite interesting. The landscape is dramatic. That said, the solution to the mystery, the how, is deceptively simple. The who is rather unsatisfying, as the killer's character is not as developed as it could be. The side-plot about WWII spies operated at such a level of simplicity as to be somewhat absurd. A significant part of this mystery is figuring out how, exactly, Alleyn will come to be involved. I had that part figured about well before the end. This is not the best of Marsh's work. Her New Zealand mysteries never are.

Ngaio Marsh, Colour Scheme (orig. 1943) ISBN: 1937384551