About Time I Read It: The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne

I’ve always been a sucker for books about books, libraries and librarians. After repeatedly spotting Josh Hanagarne’s The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family on the shelf at my small town public library I decided to give it a shot. My desire to read this book only intensified after Jean of the blog Howling Frog Books told me she once met the author at his library in Salt Lake City. After ignoring it for a week or so I pulled it out of the pile of library books by my reading chair and began reading it.

Perhaps our favorite memoirs are by individuals who’ve overcome some sort of major challenge or challenges in life. Hanagarne was born with moderate to severe Tourette’s, manifesting itself in a range of uncontrollable symptoms including facial ticks, nonsensical vocal outbursts and tongue and mouth biting. At times he even physically pummeled himself. Understandably so, this would present huge challenges throughout his life. It would take him 10 years to earn his undergrad degree. His LDS mission had to be cut short when his symptoms worsened. Employment tended to be spotty and, dating to say the least was difficult.

Cursed as he might have been with a troublesome case of Tourette’s, nevertheless Hanagarne was blessed with loving and supportive parents who stood by him every inch of the way. The same likewise could be said for his wife Janette, who easily accepted him for who he is. Even though by the end of the memoir he’s grown distant from the LDS faith of his childhood he speaks kindly and respectively of his former co-religionists and their beliefs, thanking them for the patience and goodwill they showed him over the course of his life.

This is a pretty good memoir, and is told with no shortage of humor. It’s an inspiring success story, and while Hanagarne might be the hero of the story, despite his abundance of physical strength he’s no superhero. But he’s an honest hero, one who’s not shy when it comes to recalling his shortcomings and the many mistakes he made along the way. Rumi once said a person who exhibits both positive and negative qualities, strengths and weaknesses is not flawed, but complete. This completeness makes him, like us mortal. And as a mortal we can related to him.

Another Attempt at the TBR Pile Reading Challenge

For more years than I care to remember I’ve signed up for Roof Beam Reader’s TBR Pile Challenge hoping to read most, if not all of the 12 books and two alternates on my list. I’m embarrassed to say year after year I’ve failed miserably. No matter how hard I try, at best I manage to make it through a mere handful of my intended books. Frustrated by my history of poor performance I opted to sit this year out, despite 2023 marking the challenge’s 10th anniversary.

Over the weekend however I had second thoughts and decided to give the challenge another try. After a bit of wailing and gnashing of teeth I selected 12 books and two alternates I’d like to read over the course of the year.

In accordance with the rules of the reading challenge I’ll be updating my reading progress on a dedicated page on my blog. Maybe this year I’ll finally finish a good chunk of my selected books. Wish me luck.

Book Beginnings: What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, finally in 2022 I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

The poorest county in America isn’t in Appalachia or the Deep South. It is on the Great Plains, a region of struggling ranchers and dying farm towns, and in the election of 2000 the Republican candidate for president, George W. Bush, carried it by a majority of greater than 80 percent.

Last week I featured Robert B. Edgerton’s 2002 The Troubled Heart of Africa: A History of the Congo. Before that it was Josh Hanagarne 2013 The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family. This week it’s Thomas Frank’s 2004 What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America

I’ve owned this book for over a decade and started it once, only to put in back on the shelf after reading a mere few pages. Even though it’s almost 20 years old I’m hoping this book will help explain the horrible state of our nation’s politics. (Plus, there’s several reading challenges I can apply it towards.) Here’s what Amazon has to say about What’s the Matter with Kansas?

One of “our most insightful social observers”* cracks the great political mystery of our time: how conservatism, once a marker of class privilege, became the creed of millions of ordinary Americans

With his acclaimed wit and acuity, Thomas Frank turns his eye on what he calls the “thirty-year backlash”—the populist revolt against a supposedly liberal establishment. The high point of that backlash is the Republican Party’s success in building the most unnatural of alliances: between blue-collar Midwesterners and Wall Street business interests, workers and bosses, populists and right-wingers.

2023 Reading Challenges

This year, just like in past years I will be participating in a number of reading challenges. I’ve found this is a great way to connect with other book bloggers as well as discover books that have been off my radar. Some of these, like Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I’ve been doing for years. Others, like Carolina Book Nook’s What’s in a Name are relatively new to me.

If any of these challenges look intriguing, feel free to click on the provided links for additional information. I’d also encourage you to visit the 2023 Reading Challenges tab at the top of my blog.

Book Beginnings: The Troubled Heart of Africa by Robert B. Edgerton

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, finally in 2022 I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

Why should the Congo’s past interest anyone today? An obvious reason is to try to understand the seemingly endless suffering and endurance of its people. The history of the Congo is one of unremitting evil on the part of its leaders, whether Europeans or Congolese, yet at every stage of this history ordinary people refused to surrender their compassion for one another, their quest for happiness, and their hope for a better future.

Last week I featured Stieg Larsson’s 2008 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Before that it was Josh Hanagarne’s 2013 The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family. This week it’s Robert B. Edgerton’s 2002 The Troubled Heart of Africa: A History of the Congo

I’ve been reading a lot of books about Europe. In past years my focus seemed to be on the Middle East. But reading-wise I kinda ignored Africa. That’s a shame because the world’s second largest continent sounds like a fascinating place. So this year I vowed to read more books about Africa, starting with this one I grabbed not long ago at the library. Here’s what Amazon has to say about The Troubled Heart of Africa

Written over a century ago, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness continues to dominate our vision of the Congo, unlikely as it might seem that a late-Victorian novella could encapsulate a country roughly equal in size to the United States east of the Mississippi. Conrad’s Congo is hell itself, a place where civilization won’t take, where literal and metaphor darknesses converge, and where human conduct, unmoored from social (Western, in other words) norms, turns barbaric. As Robert Edgerton shows in this crisply narrated yet sweeping work of history, the Congo is still trying to awaken from the nightmare of its past, struggling to pull free from the grip of the “heart of darkness” cliche.

About Time I Read It: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

For well over a decade people have been telling me to read Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Even though I’m more of a nonfiction kind of guy, over the last few years I’ve dipped my toes into the vast pool of Scandinavian Crime Fiction and have been pleasantly surprised by these occasional forays. A couple of summers ago by a stroke of good luck I stumbled across a copy of this 2008 international mega-hit, and its follow-up The Girl Who Played with Fire in a tiny community lending library. After letting the two books sit on the shelf ignored and unread I recently decided to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. I figured after hearing close to 15 years worth of hype there was a chance I might be disappointed. Nope. Not a chance.

There’s probably nothing fresh or insightful I could say about this novel’s twisted web of familial dysfunction, corporate corruption and long unsolved case of a missing person that’s hasn’t already been said. But to not say anything about this excellent work of fiction would be a grave disservice. Therefore, I gotta say at least something.

Pablo Picasso is credited with saying “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Maybe so many enjoyed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because Larsson broke all the rules. Instead of starting the novel out with a bang there’s over a hundred pages of what some readers feel is an unnecessarily long set-up involving alleged corporate malfeasance and a bizarre libel case. From there the focus shifts to an aristocratic Swedish family overflowing with generations of deeply hidden secrets and toxicity. Usually such abundant detail in a novel makes for a convoluted plot that’s slow as hell. Not so with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. 

The author’s choice in main characters is also an abrupt departure if compared to more traditional literary fare. The inclusion of a dogged, yet world-weary, middle-aged male investigative journalist wouldn’t be out of place in literary or film noir. But here he’s matched up with young female anti heroine. Instead of some pretty damsel in distress she’s a punked-out, reform school dropout with a bad attitude. Armed with a photographic memory and genius-level IQ, our anti heroine also boasts the advanced cyber and investigative skills of a CIA field agent. (Undernourished and overstimulated by a heavy diet of nicotine and caffeine, her bodily physique resembles those of most anorexics and heroin addicts.) Even though the two characters don’t meet until about page 300 these two contrasting individuals, much to our surprise are well matched.

Kudos to Larsson for not only crafting a hell of a page turner, but one that also manages to fit together a complex network of characters, plot lines and surprising twists. This best selling novel is worthy of every ounce of hype and easily made my Favorite Fiction List of 2022. Please consider The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo highly recommended.

2022 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. Each year I try to read as many books as possible set in, or about different European countries, or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, I found myself moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year I read and reviewed  just 10 books. This year I’m happy to report I doubled my output with 20. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany to tiny ones like Vatican City

  1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (Sweden) 
  2. True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy by Kati Marton (Hungary) 
  3. Bitter Lemons of Cyprus: Life on a Mediterranean Island by Lawrence Durrell (Cyprus) 
  4. The Wrong End of the Telescope by Rabih Alameddine (Greece) 
  5. The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel (Portugal) 
  6. The Sacrament by Ólafur Ólafsson (Iceland) 
  7. The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples by David Gilmour (Italy) 
  8. Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939 by Adam Hochschild (Spain) 
  9. Rather Die Fighting: A Memoir of World War II by Frank Blaichman (Poland) 
  10. Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History by Lea Ypi (Albania) 
  11. I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys (Romania) 
  12. God and the Fascists: The Vatican Alliance with Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, and Pavelic by Karlheinz Deschner (Vatican City) 
  13. The Son and Heir by Alexander Münninghoff (The Netherlands)
  14. The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko by Scott Stambach (Belarus) 
  15. A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen (Russia) 
  16. Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively (United Kingdom) 
  17. On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe (Belgium) 
  18. A Hero of France by Alan Furst (France) 
  19. Here in Berlin by Cristina García (Germany) 
  20. Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches From Kiev by Andrey Kurkov (Ukraine) 

Just like last year it was a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction. Five of these are translated works. Two were originally published in Dutch, and one each from German, Russian and Swedish. A number of these books also made my 2022 Favorite Nonfiction or 2022 Favorite Fiction lists

As you can guess, I’m a huge fan of this challenge. I encourage all you book bloggers to sign up and read your way across Europe. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

2022 In Review: My Favorite Fiction

Now that I’ve posted my favorite nonfiction of 2022 it’s time to announce this year’s favorite fiction. Although I didn’t read a lot of fiction this year there’s nine books that deserve high praise.

  1. The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko by Scott Stambach
  2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  3. Not Our Kind by Kitty Veldis
  4. I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys
  5. A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen
  6. The Wrong End of the Telescope by Rabih Alameddine
  7. A Hero of France by Alan Furst
  8. The Attack by Yasmina Khadra
  9. The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon

Typical of my reading tastes, eight out of these nine novels are set outside the USA, with two translated from other languages. Also typical of my tastes three of these novels are works of historical fiction.

As for my favorite novel of the year I’m going with Stieg Larsson’s global best seller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

2022 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

As 2022 finally draws to a close it’s time to announce my favorite nonfiction books of the year. This year, just like in past years I read some outstanding nonfiction. For the last two years I was able to limit my year-end list to just 10 books but this year I’ve included a dozen. In no particular order of preference here’s a collection of books I have no problems recommending.

  1. City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s by Otto Friedrich 
  2. Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age by Robert D. Kaplan 
  3. Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us by Brian Klaas 
  4. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt
  5. Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School by Stuart Jeffries
  6. The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples by David Gilmour 
  7. Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History by Lea Ypi
  8. Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge by Helen Rappaport
  9. Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937–1945 by Rana Mitter
  10. The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China by Jonathan Kaufman
  11. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild
  12. First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country by Thomas E. Ricks 

 I’d also like to add four honorable mentions to this esteemed line-up. 

  1. Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939 by Adam Hochschild
  2. Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively
  3. Afropean: Notes from Black Europe by Johny Pitts
  4. A Dream Called Home by Reyna Grande

As for my favorite book of the year, it was hard to choose but I’ll have to go with Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945

Book Beginnings: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, finally in 2022 I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

It happened every year, was almost a ritual. And this was his eighty-second birthday. When, as usual, the flower was delivered, he took off the wrapping paper and then picked up the telephone to call Detective Superintendent Morell who, when he retired, had moved to Lake Siljan in Dalarna. They were not only the same age, they had been born on the same day—which was something of an irony under the circumstances. The old policeman was sitting with his coffee, waiting, expecting the call.

Last week I featured Josh Hanagarne 2013 The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family. Before that it was Husain Haqqani’s 2013 Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of MisunderstandingThis week it’s Stieg Larsson’s 2008 global sensation The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

For well over a decade I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about this grandaddy of Nordic Noir. Back in 2020 I scored a copy from one of those little free libraries and have been trying to read it since. Needing something representing Sweden for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I cracked it open last weekend. I’m happy to say so far it’s exceeded expectations. Here’s what Amazon has to say about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

It’s about the disappearance forty years ago of Harriet Vanger, a young scion of one of the wealthiest families in Sweden . . . and about her octogenarian uncle, determined to know the truth about what he believes was her murder.

It’s about Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist recently at the wrong end of a libel case, hired to get to the bottom of Harriet’s disappearance . . . and about Lisbeth Salander, a twenty-four-year-old pierced and tattooed genius hacker possessed of the hard-earned wisdom of someone twice her age—and a terrifying capacity for ruthlessness to go with it—who assists Blomkvist with the investigation. This unlikely team discovers a vein of nearly unfathomable iniquity running through the Vanger family, astonishing corruption in the highest echelons of Swedish industrialism—and an unexpected connection between themselves.