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Archive for the ‘Neil’s Picks’ Category

The World's Strongest LibrarianI’ve read several librarian memoirs. For the most part, they didn’t capture my profession as I experience it.

I’ve read many inspirational stories of overcoming health problems, and for the most part, they seem either to be self serving, to promote some hidden agenda, to be laden with false cheeriness, or just to fail to capture the experience in terms that others would understand.

And finally, I’ve ready many descriptions of growing up in the Mormon faith, and they either haven’t matched my experience, or again, have been tainted by  hidden agendas.

That’s why I found it remarkable that Josh Hanagarne’s memoir, The World’s Strongest Librarian: a Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family, proved successful on all three fronts. Hanagarne grew up in a somewhat unusual but loving family, but he encountered an obstacle early in life, when all of the tics associated with Tourette’s Syndrome began to manifest in him.

The book is the story of his family life, his many struggles to keep his illness in check, and how his connection to his religion, his discovery of an occupation in librarianship, his love of weightlifting, and his relationships with his parents and wife all helped him in his struggle. Each chapter begins with a story from his library work, then follows the strand of that experience to connections in the rest of his life and personal history. It’s an odd construction, and an odd combination of personal traits, but Hanagarne makes it work, and in the process really captures the daily experience of working with the public in a library.

This is the kind of story that could easily become maudlin, but Hanagarne’s easy use of humor, finding laughs in the most embarrassing of situations, overcomes any note of false sentiment. He’s also refreshingly honest, willing to embrace life’s contradictions, his own failures, and his moments of doubt. This combination of humor and honesty left this reader with a strong sense that Hanagarne would be a great acquaintance: insightful, but not so stuck in his own experience or so full of himself that he couldn’t admit when he didn’t have the answer. Those are great qualities for a memoir writer, and Hanagarne shows them plentifully.

Check the WRL catalog for The World’s Strongest Librarian

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When We Were Animals, by Joshua GaylordMost of us run a little wild at times as teenagers, but Joshua Gaylord’s When We Were Animals takes us to a town where this idea is not just a figure of speech but a literal truth: the teenagers, for a time that varies for each, but usually just a year or so, spend a few nights each month running naked and wild through the streets of their small town and surrounding countryside. They commit acts of sex and violence, following primal urges while adults and young children stay inside and keep the secret from the outside world.

Our heroine is Lumen Fowler, who recalls her youth from the vantage of middle age. As a girl, Lumen was a devoted daddy’s girl and late bloomer, well-behaved, fiercely intelligent, and overachieving, she was determined not to “breach” as other teens in her town did. She’s surrounded by a believable cast of other teens who one-by-one give into the strange call–a best friend who turns into a rival, a “mean girl” type who tries to dominate the other, a charmer of a boy who all the girls have crushes on, and a rough poor kid whose raw behavior frightens them all. Through it all, Lumen stays determined to follow in the footsteps of her deceased mother, who Lumen has been told never succumbed to the wild behavior.

This blend of Gothic horror and coming-of-age story can be enjoyed on the literal level of its exciting story or as an extended metaphor about the teenage years and the pull of darker instincts. The tone is haunting, but beautiful, and the sympathetic heroine as luminous as her name suggests. One can see the direction where the story is going, but it doesn’t make the conclusion any less powerful.

If you enjoy this as much as I did, Gaylord has written other books under the pseudonym Alden Bell, most notably The Reapers Are the Angels.

Check the WRL catalog for When We Were Animals.

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Sea of PoppiesIn south and east Asia in the nineteenth century, opium was everything, not just a drug that had a social impact on society, but the basis of a large economy and the source of fortune for colonial empire builders. That’s the world where Amitav Ghosh sets his epic historical trilogy that begins with Sea of Poppies.

One has to enjoy being immersed in a new and complicated setting to enjoy these books. As the story opens, we quickly meet many characters: a young wife whose ex-soldier husband is so addicted that he can no longer work his job in the opium factory, their low-caste neighbor who is a gigantic ox-cart driver, a mulatto American seaman making a surprising rise in the world, an orphaned Frenchwoman, a somewhat pampered raja whose riches and position have become precarious, and many others. As these characters come from many social levels, ethnic backgrounds, and occupations, even their language is a riot of different styles, jargon, and levels of formality. It’s a rich story that engages all of the senses and hurls the readers headlong into a very different time and place.

My advice? Enjoy the swim. Use the glossary to solve your worst confusions and let the novel flow forward. It eventually coalesces, as all of our major characters find their way to the Ibis, a ship crossing the sea to China where some go as criminals, some as coolie workers, and others as soldiers to fight in the Opium Wars. On the ship, their stories come together into a more central strand. Ghosh has begun a masterwork, an epic tale about an epic subject that most readers won’t find familiar, featuring character types they haven’t before encountered. It works because it is an involving story and its hard not to sympathize with the plights of the characters. The language is lush and finishes the trick: transporting the reader successfully away.

The story continues with River of Smoke and is due to conclude with Flood of Fire later this year.

Check the WRL catalog for Sea of Poppies

Or try it as an audiobook on compact disc

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Red RisingWhat if you had worked your whole life, based on the hope of a better world for your children, and then discovered that the better world already existed, and that you weren’t allowed in? And what if that better world was built on the captive labor of you and thousands of others like you?

That’s the premise of Red Rising, the first novel in a trilogy by debut author Pierce Brown. Young Darrow, a member of a social class called the Reds, has toiled for his entire life on the bleak interior of Mars, mining raw materials that are to be used to terraform the surface someday. But after a string of events that turn his life upside down (I don’t want to give away too many plot points), he is brought to the surface and discovers that the terraforming is already done, and that the Golds, the top class in a society where different colors have different places, live there in godlike luxury.

The trouble is that the Golds also have godlike bodies and minds, leaving the rest of society without the tools to revolt against them. But the Sons of Ares, the secret organization that has brought Darrow to the surface, have the surgical skills to build him into someone who can pass as a Gold. Darrow is to infiltrate the company of other young Golds and try to rise to a powerful position in their society, a position from which he might be able to foment a civil war. To reach that point, Darrow will have to compete in a contest of savage war games with shifting rules between houses of young Golds, many of them with almost godlike physical and mental powers.

This is science fiction, but it reads like epic fantasy. If you’ve been looking for a book that blended the worlds of The Hunger Games and an epic fantasy like Game of Thrones, you’ll love it. Brown builds his world in a way that seems effortless but is completely satisfying. His characters are diverse and intriguing. Unlike many epic works, the story here takes off quickly, and readers will be pleased to find that they don’t have to wade through hundreds of pages before they start getting the payoff. Best of all, whenever it starts to look like the story will get predictable, Brown finds a major twist to raise the stakes for Darrow. One warning, Brown has created a violent world, and if you don’t care for that, make another reading choice.

I’ve finished the second book of the series, Golden Son, and it’s every bit as exciting as the first. I’m not always quick to read series, but I’ll be in the line when they release Morning Star in 2016.

Check the WRL catalog for Red Rising

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KingpinThe news is full of stories about cybercrime, but how does it really work, and who are the thieves turning online information into ill-gotten gains? It’s a complicated matter, and difficult to explain in terms that those without a technical background can understand, but in Kingpin, Poulsen not only succeeds in telling the story, but he manages to make keyboard crime exciting as well.

This is the story of Max “Vision” Butler, a Montana native whose hot head and illegal computer skills landed him in trouble early. He recovered and found some success working for Internet startup companies, offering his skills as a “white hat,” a hacker who discovered the loopholes exploited by criminals and made them public. In doing so, he secretly played both sides of the law, and eventually landed in trouble.

In prison he met people who could turn stolen credit card numbers and other information into hard goods, and upon release they joined forces, with Max doing the hacking. His skills grow, and eventually he is outmaneuvering other “carders,” taking over the bulletin boards where they do business, and exposing both rival criminals to law enforcement and law enforcement moles to the criminals when it suits his needs.

Poulsen tells the story of Butler’s rise and fall well, eventually detailing how a sometimes lucky, sometimes intrepid FBI brought him to justice. I left this book with a sense of surprise at how disorganized this area of “organized” crime is, or at least how chaotic it was in the years described. It makes one shudder to think at what we might be in for as these criminals become more disciplined or when their turf battles become more violent. If you have even a basic understanding of how the Internet works, you should be able to follow Poulsen’s suspenseful story to your own interesting conclusions.

Check the WRL catalog for Kingpin

 

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Eye of the Red TsarThe assassination of the Romanovs is re-worked into an exciting period thriller in this series opener by Sam Eastland. The Eye of the Red Tsar is both the title of the book and the nickname for the lead character, a Finn named Pekkala. The novel opens in 1929, eleven years after the death of the Tsar. Pekkala, once Nicholas II’s right-hand man in matters of secrecy and security, has been held in a work camp, kept available to Stalin should the right opportunity present itself. As the book opens, it has: New evidence about that night has come up, and only Pekkala has the inside information to confirm or deny it.

To complicate matters, the man sent to fetch Pekkala from imprisonment is his own estranged brother, a ne’er-do-well now risen in the Soviet bureaucracy. With great reluctance Pekkala is lured to the case, partly by curiosity, partly through the possibility that one of the Romanovs may have survived. But is he just being used to lead Stalin to the Tsar’s never recovered treasure?

It’s a fascinating premise, and Eastland re-creates the atmosphere of the early Stalinist period believably. He alternates between a journey across a strange Russian landscape (one of my favorite bits involved a show town, built to show off the successes of socialism to visitors) and flashbacks to the story of how Pekkala fell out with his brother, came to Tsar Nicholas II’s attention, and then followed him until the fateful night.

Eastland has continued his series through five books to date, following Pekkala’s charmed but difficult life up to WWII times so far. It’s a consistently enjoyable exploration of a time and place in history where one didn’t have to look far for suspenseful twists of fate.

Check the WRL catalog for Eye of the Red Tsar

Or try it as an audiobook on CD

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Drama HighThe subtitle of Michael Sokolove’s Drama High reveals many of the reasons one might like it: “The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater.”

The brilliant teacher is Lou Volpe, a forty year veteran of the teaching wars, nearing the end of his career, a man who took over a drama program even though he had no experience as an actor or in teaching acting. He simply loved the theater, and taught himself how to mount major productions. By the time of his career on which the book focuses, he is so accomplished that major Broadway producers like Cameron Mackintosh ask him to test edgy or complicated shows to see if they can be licensed to high schools and small theaters.

The struggling town is Levittown, Pennsylvania, a former steel town struggling to maintain its economy and population. It’s a surprising place to find a great drama program. Usually that elite status is reached only by private schools with lots of wealthy and talented parents who can pay for expensive production elements and donate their time to teach top level skills. But Volpe’s students aren’t the typical drama kids, the edgy and emotional types, and they certainly aren’t affluent. They’re working class kids who make choices like whether or not to continue with a sports team or underdogs who struggle to be in a show while they keep a part time job that helps out the family. This gives them an affinity for some characters that wealthy, artsy kids can’t always find. They’re also the kind of students Volpe has and knows, and he makes the best of them. He’s built a program so good that many of his students find their way to scholarships and professional careers.

The magic of theater is displayed through the productions that Volpe stages during the year in which author Sokolove is a regular presence in the classroom. Where most high schools are still performing the same twenty shows that schools were performing in the sixties or seventies, Truman High is tackling contemporary theater. In particular, there’s Spring Awakening, a musical with a historical setting but very modern teen morals, and Good Boys and True, an edgy drama that Volpe’s students hope to perform well enough to take to national competition. (I won’t spoil the story and tell you whether or not they make it.) Rising to the occasion of performing well in emotion-laden, high-quality productions puts a lot of pressure on the kids, but most of them grow and even flourish with the challenge. If there’s one weakness to this kind of book, it’s that it will leave you wishing you could see for yourself the productions that Sokolove describes.

There’s also a “can you go home again?” appeal to this story. Sokolove was a student of Volpe’s long ago, in days when Volpe was a young, charismatic and influential English teacher, not yet a drama teacher. He remembers when Volpe was married to a likable woman (that status has also changed, but again, I won’t spoil the story) and motivating students like himself to journalistic careers. Volpe’s subject has changed, and Levittown has declined since Sokolove’s youth, and his own attempts to come to grips with the changes are part of the drama.

If you like theater, or underdog stories, or inspirational tales of any kind, you’ll find something to like in Drama High.

Check the WRL catalog for Drama High

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