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Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ 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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Bud here with a few mini reviews of some good non-fiction books.

Helter SkelterHelter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, by Vincent Bugliosi & Curt Gentry

The fascinating story of Charlie Manson, his fanatically loyal hippie followers and the savage Tate-LaBianca murders is engrossingly recounted by the author Vince Bugliosi, who was directly involved as a prosecuting attorney in the case. Forty-one years after its original publication, it deservedly remains one of the best, and most popular, True Crime books of all time.

Sample sentence: “It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes down the canyon.”

Check the WRL catalog for Helter Skelter

 

The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride, by Daniel James BrownIndifferent Stars Above

The story of the tragic Donner party expedition in 1846 is vividly recounted in this fine history book. Told primarily through the experience of one young woman, the narrative is grim and occasionally heartrending but also educational. You learn a lot about what everyday life was like for pioneers on the overland trail and, in particular, about the astonishing ability of people to endure great suffering and survive. A tragic tale eloquently and engrossingly re-told.

Sample sentence: “When she first looked into the survivors’ eyes, Eliza Gregson was startled by what she saw looking back at her, and she later marveled at it. ‘I shall never forget the looks of those people, for the most part of them was crazy and their eyes danced and sparkled in their heads like stars.’”

Check the WRL catalog for The Indifferent Stars Above

 

Empire of the Summer MoonEmpire of the Summer Moon, by S.C. Gwynne

The lifestyle, battles with white settlers, and eventual decline of the Comanche Indians in late 19th century Southwest America are detailed in this extensively researched and elegiac history. In particular the lives of white Indian captive Cynthia Ann Parker and her mixed-blood son Quanah, last war Chief of the Comanche are poignantly recounted.   A remarkable story graphically brought to life by a skilled writer. A good choice for anyone who thinks history is boring.

Sample Line: “What was she (Cynthia Ann) in the end? A white woman by birth, yes, but also a relic of old Comancheria, of the fading empire of high grass and fat summer moons and buffalo herds that blackened the horizon.”

Check the WRL catalog for Empire of the Summer Moon

Or try Empire of the Summer Moon as an audiobook on CD

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unstuffNathaniel from Circulation Services shares this review.

“Gentle reader; less-than-gentle reader; kind, clumsy, unfocused, slightly desperate reader… this book is for you.”

This isn’t the kind of book I usually read. It’s definitely not the kind of book I usually review. But my parents have told me (politely, but firmly) to get my boxes of stuff out of their garage, so I’ve found myself turning to books like Unstuff Your Life! in hopes they’ll help me out.

Surprisingly, they do! And of the ones I’ve read, Mellen’s book has stuck out for me in that it offered a lot of good-humored, practical advice, useful even for a twenty-something who lives in a small apartment.

Andrew Mellen is a professional organizer. He works with clients ranging from business owners to homemakers, and in his book he writes as though you, the reader, are one of his clients and he’s working through everything with you. His focus is on the psychological causes of clutter, and he makes a point of reiterating, “You are not your stuff.” He asks questions that prompt you to think about the way you think about your possessions. He reminds you that you can’t take it with you. He relates his conversations with other clients and shows how they worked through their mental stumbling blocks.

You might be thinking “Wait, I thought you said practical advice?” Well, he gives you that as well. The book is separated into specific areas to tackle – Kitchen, Paperwork, Mementos, and so on – and each section contains detailed instructions, checklists, and other information that you can use even if you don’t follow Mellen’s instructions to the letter. For instance: the cleaning tools you need before you start on a certain room, a checklist of things that might go in a car, and tips, like reminding you to sort stuff first and then buy storage, not the other way around.

The end goal is to get rid of clutter both in your space and your mind, so you can focus on you and your life. As Mellen says “I don’t think paying bills or filing papers or cleaning out the junk drawer is or should be that important. The messes that surround you are keeping you from what is important.”

If you have a garage full of boxes to deal with (or any clutter problem) and want some help with it, Unstuff Your Life! is a solid choice.

Check the WRL catalog for Unstuff Your Life!

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firebirds

If you were a bird, would you prefer to live in a lush, green forest or one that was blackened and burnt by a recent wildfire? Surprisingly, as we learn in this slim, fully-illustrated, children’s non-fiction book, several bird species actually prefer to live in burnt forests. Sneed B. Collard III discusses work done by University of Montana biologist Dick Hutto, who set out to learn about the natural environment of areas blackened by wildfires. Hutto and his wife Sue counted more than 100 species of birds in several dozen burn areas in 1988, a year where more than 72,000 separate wildfires burned more than five million acres of land in the United States.

Hutto’s research found that some birds, including American Robins, Chipping Sparrows, Mountain Bluebirds, several species of woodpeckers, and others, find abundant food and shelter in burnt areas, often more so than in what we would normally consider healthier, richer environments. It isn’t just birds that thrive; insects, wildflowers, shrubs and other life also flourish in areas that have been recently burned. Instead of trying to suppress more wildfires, perhaps we should allow more of them to burn naturally.

Hutto also questions the current practice of loggers going into a forest after a wildfire and removing the remaining trees for industry. His reasoning is that wildfires are part of nature, and such “salvaging” disturbs the natural burnt environment and can do damage to the wildlife that thrives in those areas. However, Dr. Steve Arno, considered to be a world expert in fire and forest management, believes that logging after a burn can be helpful in making sure a more severe fire does not occur after the first “because you have all that dead fuel on the ground.” Dr. Vicki Saab, a wildlife biologist working with the U.S. Forest Service, is also featured in the book. She and her team have come up with scientific models that show what logging can be done in a burned area to balance the needs of some woodpecker species with industry’s desire to log the still-standing trees. The author shows that where industry, politics and nature meet, answers are not always easy or clear.

Although this 47-page book was written for children ages 8-14, I thought it was a good distillation for adults, too, of the complex issues surrounding wildfire. Those of us who grew up hearing Smokey Bear’s admonition, “Only you can prevent forest fires!” may start looking at wildfires a little differently.

The book is illustrated with many beautiful photographs of birds and burn areas. Scattered throughout the text are ten “Featured Fire Birds.” A photo of the bird is accompanied by a box of short text about the bird and how it survives in a burned area. This book focuses on Western bird species, since that is where most of the wildfires take place and where much of the scientific work is being done, but Virginia readers may recognize American Robins, Dark-Eyed Juncos, Northern Flickers, Hairy Woodpeckers and House Wrens.

Check the WRL catalog for Fire Birds

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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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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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Island on FireSome volcanoes are world famous; everyone has heard of Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompeii in the time of Pliny. Iceland’s volcanoes are less known, although they were in the news a few years ago when unpronounceable Eyjafjallajokull spewed out enough ash to disrupt European air travel for weeks. Eyjafjallajokull may be more present in modern consciousness but it isn’t the only, the largest, or even the most dangerous of Iceland’s many volcanoes. Recently, scientists and historians have been focusing their attention on Iceland’s fissure volcano Laki, which evidence suggests may have disrupted world climate for years after it started erupting in 1783.

Island on Fire’s long subtitle, “The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano the Changed the World” sums up the problem with its history: this eruption occurred in a sparsely populated part of the world before the advent of easy international travel or communication. Nonetheless new research using techniques such as ancient ice cores suggests Laki’s eruption affected the climate all over the world. This lead to crop failures and famine and, depending on how you calculate it, may have killed millions of people. In a long eruption that continued over months Laki spewed out enough toxic gases to poison the entire lower atmosphere, especially over Europe. From all over Europe numerous newspaper accounts from the summer of 1783 report a “dry fog” that made it difficult for people to breathe.

Much of the surviving eyewitness account from Iceland comes from Jón Steingrímsson the ‘fire priest’ who famously gave a sermon while lava was bearing down on his village church. His journal reports unbelievable devastation and destruction, including the horrific symptoms in people and livestock from months of exposure to fluorine gas.

A compelling, if sometimes disturbing read, Island on Fire includes plenty of maps and black and white photos. The interested reader can also find color visuals of Iceland’s wonderful landscape, and the story of Laki’s eruption in the documentary Doomsday Volcanoes. For those interested in volcanoes in general try the documentary series Mega Disasters.

For another fascinating book about the historic effects of a major volcanic eruption try Tambora, by Gillen D’Arcy Wood. And for a gripping teen trilogy about the worldwide effects of an apocalyptic eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano I heartily recommend Ashfall by Mike Mullin.

Check the WRL catalog for Island on Fire.

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