Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Life Lessons from The World's Strongest Librarian

If you think that you need to be a librarian to enjoy Josh Hanegarne's moving memoir, please let me disabuse you of that thought right now. Though he does relate some very funny stories about what really goes on at the reference desk, and in the stacks after dark, this book covers an amazing amount of ground and offers some beautifully thought out life lessons.

What actually drew me to this book is the subtitle, A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family. Tourette's Syndrome as an ailment is a fascinating subject on its own. People's reaction to those who suffer from this disease is not fascinating at all. In fact, in my own library we have a family of two, a patient, loving and I'm sure long-suffering dad and his adult son who is plagued with Tourette's, who are in several times a week.

This young man exhibits many of the mannerisms, loud shouts, tics, and frantic, uncontrollable waving of arms, that Josh Hanegarne describes in his memoir. But Josh became a librarian while our young man has been vilified by other customers, reported for being disruptive, and even asked to leave. So much for loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Hanegarne uses the Dewey Decimal System to preface chapters, giving readers a heads up as to what subjects he'll be dealing with next. He is so real, honest, and self-effacing. He seems totally unafraid of putting his whole person hood out there for readers to analyze, enjoy or dissect. His brilliant parents hold pride of place in Josh's life.

 His dad, who suspected that Josh might have Tourette's when he was still quite young (it wasn't diagnosed until years later), entices his son to the gym, a place that will become a salvation for a guy who has an inordinate amount of energy to channel. His mom, on the other hand, entices him to the library, another place of salvation. And Josh reads everything! What a readers' advisor he is. His taste is all over the board eclectic. And, tell me, how can you not fall in love with a guy who hides his Stephen King book from his mom by wrapping it in another book jacket and thinking he can put one over on her?

The Hanegarne family is Mormon and Josh does a fantastic job of explaining the ins and outs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, how it began, the tenets of the beliefs, the expectations for the young people to fulfill their mission, marry early and procreate. Josh is funny and wise as he tells us about his escapades on the dating scene with his tics and whistles, grunts and shouts. He credits his wonderful mom with introducing him to the woman who will become his wife and then breaks your heart with the story of their long quest to have a child of their own.

Josh Hanegarne is a deep thinker. His loss of faith in his religion and what it might mean to his family is so painfully thought out yet so logically and beautifully explained. He's a man always searching for answers, always asking, always discussing his doubts and concerns with others and finding acceptance. This is a man you just know you'd love to know. And guess what librarians? He's the new Nancy Pearl in my book. Do yourself a favor and get acquainted. http://joshhanagarne.com/

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Dark World of Dennis Lehane

I've been a huge fan of Dennis Lehane ever since he agreed to come to one of the first Southwest Florida Reading Festivals, back when it was run by a small group of librarians and was held outdoors under the hot Florida sun. It's come a long way since then and Mr. Lehane has returned to receive our Distinguished Author Award. www.readfest.org

Dennis Lehane

So I'm not sure why it took me so long to get to his latest novel Live by Night. Even though I don't drive as often or as far as I used to when I was a working girl, I still decided to listen to the audio version of the book. The reader, Jim Frangione, did an exceptional job of setting the tone of the story with his low, serious, but never somnolent voice. One surmises that things will not end well.

I've read all of Mr. Lehane's books except for the short stories and I think it's fair to say that he has a very jaded opinion of humanity in general and politicians in particular. This dark world view informs all of his work, from the wonderful police procedurals featuring Angela Gennaro and Patrick Kenzie, to the gritty, deeply disturbing Mystic River. Still, his way with words is so superlative, his ability to paint a picture so exceptional, and his way of eliciting the emotional tug from even the hardest readers' hearts so compelling, that he raises the bar in whichever genre he chooses.

Live by Night builds slowly, you think you'll be reading an Irish Godfather. Joe Coughlin is just another two-bit hood working in the Boston underworld when he runs up against big-time gangster Albert White and falls hard for Albert's girl, Emma, a woman who will bring him no joy.

After a bank heist goes terribly awry, Joe and his father Thomas, Asst. Chief Superintendent of the Boston police department, have their final blowout. Beaten and bowed, Joe lands in Charlestown, a violent prison where a cop's kid will be hard pressed to find protection without being able to kill or be killed. And so begins a long relationship with an Italian mob boss who runs Charlestown from the inside out.

The novel follows Joe to Tampa, Florida, where, after proving his mettle to the local Cuban honcho, he gets involved in the lucrative rum trade. We're smack dab in the middle of the prohibition era and Lehane's meticulous research provides readers with a fascinating lesson in the history of supply and demand, the cigar industry in Ybor City, and the development of the west coast of Florida.

Lehane manages to write a rip-roaring historical balanced with a nuanced psychological portrait of the criminal mind as it wrestles with good and evil. Almost every character, though deeply flawed, shows glimpses of the humanity often buried deep beneath the surface.

This is a novel about family and loyalty and even about love. It's about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons and about those sons looking for redemption, a stab at a legitimate life, a chance to make amends.Ultimately this is a gut wrenching, completely absorbing meditation on the fate of those who choose to Live by Night.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Why Twelve Years a Slave?

Last week I attended an afternoon showing of the film Twelve Years a Slave. I love movies, those with a message, those that brings me to tears, and the ones that have me laughing out loud. Often times I'll realize, in advance, that I'm going to be demoralized or brought down by a film but I go anyway because I feel as though I need to bear witness to the worst parts of human nature. (think Schindler's List)

 I also prefer to see every film that will be nominated for awards so that I can have some buy-in on Oscars night when I stay awake way past my bedtime til the bitter end. And...I read every film review available. When I'm told from such disparate sources as People Magazine and The New York Times that a movie is "necessary," I'm on it. Such was the case with the highly touted Twelve Years a Slave.

And now I'm going to ask again, "Why did we need Twelve Years a Slave?" What new ground did this film cover? What light did it shed on one of the most horrific episodes in United States history? I discussed this with friends last week, both of whom are around my age, lets call us 60+, and mentioned that I felt that I had learned more about the full history of slavery from reading and watching Alex Haley's Roots saga, not to mention the eye-opening Alice Walker novel and subsequent film, The Color Purple.

Anne and Beth had to remind me that it's possible and even likely that the reviewers of this new movie were not even alive when Roots or The Color Purple first came out. We would be going back to the late '70's or early '80's. Wow! That was an eye opener and, of course, they are most likely right. Still, isn't it incumbent upon reviewers to be knowledgeable about what preceded the current? Or are they only responsible for what's right before their eyes? I see both sides to this dilemma.

Let me say that, from the start, I took issue with the title, Twelve Years a Slave, even though I understand that it was taken from the book by Solomon Northrup, a free man who lived in New York state, was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. and sold into enslavement. Twelve Years Enslaved would have been the more appropriate title.

What bothered me the most about the film was that, contrary to what we know from history, it depicted the enslaved people on the plantations as both fearful and cowed, rather than as defiant and able to run, choosing death over enslavement. Granted, Solomon had a reason to live. His wife and children in New York had no idea what had happened to him because he had no way of communicating with them.

 Though he was a man of talent and knowledge, could read and write, Solomon had no access to paper and pen, a fact that is addressed in a frustrating scene where he tries to fashion a pen out of wood and ink from boiled berries. He painstakingly, and though the film doesn't show it, one gathers, writes a letter over several nights or even weeks, entrusting it to a "man of God," who's seeking redemption by working in the cotton fields. I'll say no more.

I've been looking forward to discussing this film with my sister with whom I'm usually in either complete accord or totally opposite. We are never wishy-washy when it comes to our views of movies and literature and we share a penchant for the dark side. I'll be curious to see if she agrees with me on this but I didn't see any Academy Award worthy material here.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Violet Hour

Readers who know me well will understand why I was drawn to this title and book cover. So what a joy it was to discover that there's much more to love than a color and a feeling. It's the maturity of Katherine Hill's debut novel about a family in free fall.

It came at an especially opportune time as I had just struggled through another novel in which the author, who shall remain nameless at this time, had created a family brimming with stereotypes and lacking any authenticity.

The Violet Hour, on the other hand, is a sophisticated novel about a twenty-year marriage that has suffered from an erosion of trust brought on by one partner's need  for affirmation through sexual dalliances. Only two, Cassandra will tell her husband. They have nothing to do with her love for him which always seems to be a little deeper when faced with losing him. She apologizes. She's an artist. She has heightened sensibilities.

And Abe? He just swims away. Literally. On an afternoon of sailing in the San Francisco Bay, Abe's passion and Cassandra's idea of a living hell, Abe leaves their teenage daughter Elizabeth at the helm after a loud, vile, violent shouting match with his wife over her latest transgression, and dives into the Pacific.

Once this effective prologue gets your undivided attention the following three hundred pages fly by as Ms. Hill unveils the back story, how Abe and Cassandra met, the complications of their individual childhoods, his as an orphan raised by his grandmother, hers as the oldest child to Howard and Eunice Fabricant, who prepare bodies for burial in the basement of their Bethesda home.

Abe and Cassandra have ostensibly moved on since his defection. Elizabeth is now a medical student studying back east. Cassandra's art has earned her a comfortable living  and Abe does his best to be an absentee father. Howard Fabricant's 80th birthday celebration is the reason that the entire family descends upon the funeral home, a perfect place for Ms. Hill to unload her boatload of talent, as the disparate brothers, sisters, boyfriends, exes and neighbors gather for the portentous occasion.

Though brought up in this funeral home, Cassandra has an uneasy relationship with death, a fact that will manifest itself in an amazing scene toward the end of this extremely satisfying novel, in which Cassandra will be asked to grow up, step up, and put her artistic skills to work on a corpse.

It's such fun to watch a debut talent at work. Katherine Hill has written a novel  full of humor, insight and wisdom. The jacket photo shows me a very young woman but the words are those of an old soul with an intuitive knowledge of our human faults and foibles. A lovely read indeed.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Two Wrenching Reads

Apologies at having been away for a week. I've been working on a book for Library Journal which, as it happened, wasn't one of my favorites this year. Naturally I obsessed over the review but have just hit "send."

And speaking of Library Journal, I was so proud and surprised to see my name mentioned in one of fiction editor, Barbara Hoffert's articles in the online version of the magazine last month. It was titled, "The Possibilities of Africa: A Talk with Author/Journalist J. M. Ledgard."

 In the run up to the Q and A with the author, she mentioned me by name as her "smart go-to reviewer for African-themed literature." Whew! That's pretty heady stuff. I walked around just a tad full of myself for a couple of days.

Now that both of the reviews Barbara was referring to have been printed I wanted to share them with you and tell you that they will probably top my 2013 list of bests. Either one will tear your heart out with the beauty of the writing and the palpable sense that you are drawn into the very souls of these characters. I haven't read any American writers this year whose work can compete with these two incredible novels. (maybe because I'm still on hold for Goldfinch and The Signature of All Things)

First up is Dust by Yvonne Owuor:


The other one is the first novel by child soldier memoirist Ishmael Beah:

Its title is The Radiance of Tomorrow, an apt title for a radiant man. My friend Maryellen and I were privileged to hear Mr. Beah speak at Book Expo back in May and I don't know that I've ever met a man who radiates joy the way he does. It's almost incomprehensible when one reads of his life and its horrific beginnings. He is a living testament to the power of the human spirit.

Library Journal
★ 11/15/2013
For Mama Kadie, returning to her village, Imperi, after the seven-year civil war in Sierra Leone, home is the dirt sifting between her toes and the scent of coffee flowers. For Pa Moiwa, it is burying the bones of those who did not escape the destruction. Slowly, others return, hoping to mend the fabric of lives sundered by war. First Bockarie and later Benjamin, former teachers in the village, arrive with their families. Then Sila and his children, missing arms and hands, find acceptance there. Even Colonel, leading a band of former child soldiers seeking to reclaim their humanity, is embraced by the elders. But hardship persists. Bockarie and Benjamin work months without a paycheck while the school principal cooks the books. A mining company rapes their land yet entices villagers with big salaries while downplaying horrific working conditions. Still, each physically and psychically damaged person in Imperi will learn to trust again. VERDICT Beah, who broke our hearts with the haunting memoir of his life as a boy soldier (Long Way Gone), will render readers speechless with the radiance of his storytelling in this novel of grace, forgiveness, and a vision of a tomorrow without conflict. [See Prepub Alert, 7/8/13.]—Sally Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Fort Myers, FL

I've learned how rewarding it is to read outside of my comfort zone. Becoming acquainted with new authors is one of the greatest pleasures of my reviewing for Library Journal. Over the past several years I have found myself in Somalia, Liberia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Ghana, and Nigeria without leaving the comfort of my lanai. Thank you readers for taking these excursions with me.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Louise Penny Lets the Light In

After languishing all summer at the cloistered monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups with Chief Inspector Gamache, recovering addict Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and the undeniably evil Inspector Francoeur, I feared that Ms. Penny might have come to the end of her outstanding series about the Surete de Quebec. The Beautiful Mystery was overlong on solving the mystery of the bludgeoned monk yet ferociously dark in its treatment of the ongoing power struggle between Gamache and Francoeur. The latter, a man willing to destroy the fragile Beauvoir if it will take down his nemesis, Inspector Gamache once and for all.

It was with trepidation that I began listening - yes, you must listen to these books - to How the Light Gets In, although early reviews told me it would be one of Ms. Penny's finest yet. You see, I've fallen half in love with Armand and Jean-Guy, as well as the denizens of the village of Three Pines where most of the books' action takes place. I simply couldn't bear to see the author ruin the lives of these people I feel I've come to know and understand deeply.

So it is that Chief Inspector Gamache, when he needs a place to hunker down in order to draw the final curtain on the thirty years of diabolical misdeeds by a faction of Quebec's police department, finds himself renting a home in Three Pines, where he can set up a sophisticated computer network with the help of trusted friends, Supt. Therese Brunel and her husband Jerome, who happens to be a super-hacker. The technology involved in cyber-espionage - I can see why Snowden got caught up in it - is absolutely fascinating and had me on the edge of my seat as files were opened and downloaded under split second time constraints.

Ms. Penny has an awesome talent and has been rewarded over and over again for her work. Though I've read that her background is in journalism, not psychiatry, Louise Penny exhibits a remarkable acuity when it involves the human psyche. In Three Pines she has created a place where oddballs and misfits live in relative harmony, caring for each other and banding together when the outside threatens.

 Even her rendering of the inner workings of a dog's mind seem to be spot on. You'll understand how she brings Gamache's German shepherd Henri to life by reading more about her at her website. http://www.louisepenny.com/louise.htm

She is able to inhabit Jean-Guy's mind and depict the horror of destructive self-talk, paranoia, and the psychic pain that he's been fighting ever since his beloved Gamache made the fateful decision to leave him bleeding to death on a factory floor after the department was ambushed in a raid. Each man has been suffering from PTSD throughout the past few novels but now the true extent of the betrayal that's been perpetrated on them is finally coming into the light.

I'll say no more about the plot. You simply must read this book for the complexity of the character development and to appreciate the way the author has been building to this moment through all of her previous novels.  There are curmudgeons who wonder why readers are drawn to fiction, especially to murder mysteries. I say that it is within the pages of fiction that we learn more about human nature than practically anywhere else. Louise Penny is one of many great teachers.