Libraries are often thought of as quiet places, with librarians acting as shushing gatekeepers, bespectacled and soft. Josh Hanagarne, a Utah librarian, doesn’t quite fit the stereotype. At 6 feet 7 inches tall, he lifts weights and can bend horseshoes with his hands. He can have trouble with the quiet part, too; he has struggled with Tourette Syndrome since elementary school. Hanagarne writes about strength training, Tourette’s, his Mormon faith, dating, and his urban public library experiences in The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.
At six, Hanagarne’s parents noticed him repeatedly touching his lip to his nose while onstage during a school play. This initial involuntary movement bloomed into a variety of motor and verbal tics as he entered his teens. Encouraged by his father, he started gym workouts in an effort to exert control over the disorder as well as combat some of the hopelessness he feels when the tics are particularly troublesome. Here, “troublesome” can mean self-injurious, drawing blood, and he notes that his neurologist states that Hanagarne’s case is the most severe he’s seen.
Hanagarne, however, has not written a pity party. He is both an avid reader and a gifted writer and while parts of his story are heartbreaking, much of it is insightful, fascinating, and downright funny. His chapters are named with the Dewey Decimal classification numbers of the subjects contained within. Chapter 7 is "646.78 Marriage", which bodes well since Chapter 3 is "305.31 Lust Religious Aspects Christianity". He shares his evolving views on religion, his fears for his son, and his involvement with weight lifting and body awareness as a means to control his uncontrollable movements. His trenchant observations about public libraries and their patrons illustrate both the diversity of library users and his beliefs that enrich the lives of all those who walk through their doors. He also shares his thoughts and offers bookish advice on his blog also named The World's Strongest Librarian.
Actress Nia Vardalos won seemingly overnight stardom and acclaim with her first movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which she also wrote. Although she seemed on top of the world, there was one thing missing from her life—a child. Married to fellow comedic actor Ian Gomez, Vardalos tried for over a decade to become a mother. In the funny and touching new memoir Instant Mom, she chronicles the journey that led the pair to the adoption of their daughter, and shares with the reader the transformative experience that is motherhood.
Despite the title, there was nothing “instant” about Vardalos’ becoming a mother. Much of her professional success in life, she admits, is due to her stubborn nature and her refusal to take “no” for an answer. She admits to translating the meaning of the word as “try a different way.” Five years of devastating miscarriages led her to many more years of IVF treatments and even attempts with a surrogate. She kept this personal heartbreak hidden from the media even as millions embraced her as an actress they could immediately relate to, a Greek-Canadian girl next door.
Vardalos’ humorous, approachable tone makes Instant Mom a page-turning read, and when she decides to explore adoption via foster care, you know that this will finally be the answer. When she receives the phone call confirming that they have been approved to adopt a three-year-old little girl, she and her husband have just fourteen hours to prepare for her arrival. From this point, the book becomes a love story, one filled with trial and error as well as joy and frustration as the family gets to know one another and settles into the routines of everyday life. Instant Mom is a memoir of hard-earned motherhood with just a dash of Hollywood name-dropping, a book with wide general appeal.
Letting it Go is Miriam Katin’s gorgeous new graphic novel, in which she tries to come to terms with her past as a Holocaust survivor. Due to her past, Katin had come to despise all things German. When her son moves to Berlin, she realizes she must somehow come to terms with Germany if she is to maintain a relationship with her son.
Born in Hungary during the Second World War, Katin eventually immigrated to Israel in 1957 where she worked as a graphic artist for the Israeli Defense Forces. She went on to work for the MTV Animation and Disney Studios. She wrote her first graphic novel, We Are On Our Own, at the age of 63. Although Katin is writing about very heavy subject matter, the overall tone and art remain fairly light and at times, humorous. At once literary and accessible, Letting it Go reveals Katin’s daily life with her husband in New York while calling on the likes of Kafka to reveal her inner fears.
Done in colored pencil, Letting it Go works exceedingly well as a graphic novel. Katin is able to reveal details and nuance in her art, letting us inside her psyche. The mostly panel-less comics flow nicely with the fairly free-form text. The mix of black and white and color also nicely juxtaposes past and present. Like Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, this would make an excellent introduction to nonfiction graphic novels.
The darling daughters of Downton Abbey would surely have shopped at Selfridge’s, England’s first modern department store. In Shopping, Seduction, & Mr. Selfridge, Lindy Woodhead transports readers to a bygone era when nattily dressed ladies and gentlemen made shopping an event. Woodhead also shines a light on the man behind the mannequins, the inimitable Harry Gordon Selfridge.
Selfridge began as a stock boy working at Marshall Field’s in Chicago and eventually became a partner in that established business. His dreams were big and at the turn of the century he was able to make his magic happen in England. He wanted to bring to London a store that was unrivaled in extravagance. It took several years, but London’s first dedicated department store built from scratch opened in a halo of hype. The publicity was well-deserved, as the store really was larger than life. With six acres of floor space and every conceivable amenity, Selfridge’s was a legacy to limitless luxury. There were elevators and a bank, an ice skating rink and a restaurant with a full orchestra. Shopping was like an entertainment at Selfridge’s, where regular customers could mingle with celebrities such as Anna Pavlova and Noel Coward.
Woodhead tells the story of the retail revolution of the early twentieth century, but also focuses on the rise and fall of one visionary, but ultimately doomed man. Selfridge’s life was as large as his store and filled with mistresses, mansions, and money. This is the fascinating true story that inspired the Masterpiece series Mr. Selfridge, starring Jeremy Piven, currently airing on PBS.
When the average Joe hears the word “Scientology,” Joe might think of celebrity devotees like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Perhaps Joe thinks of founder L. Ron Hubbard and remembers the vast array of sci-fi pulp fiction stories authored by Hubbard. Does Joe, however, know what Scientology is? Is it a religion, a philosophy, a science or a cult? Lawrence Wright, in his book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief takes an in-depth look at Scientology’s founder, Hubbard, and his successor, David Miscavige, the history of the organization, and its beliefs. Miscavige’s niece, Jenna Miscavige Hill, has a turn telling her story in Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, which she co-authors with Lisa Pulitzer.
In Going Clear, Wright begins with an overview of Hubbard’s erratic early life, which includes stories of bigamy, psychological disturbances, and the near-death experience in the dentist’s chair which led to his formulation of the Scientology doctrine and the publication of what may be its bible, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. Wright explores the growth of the movement, its appeal to the Hollywood crowd, and especially looks at the elite, highly committed and rigidly controlled Sea Org corps members.
Hill opens Beyond Belief by describing how she, at seven years old, signed a contract binding herself to “the Sea Organization for the next billion years...” As a Thetan, a sort of immortal soul, she would continue to inhabit bodies to fulfill the contract terms. Living on a ranch with other Sea Org children, she saw her parents only on Saturday nights. Her dedication to Scientology remained strong but as the demands of the group worked to increasingly both isolate and punish Hill, she broke ties with the community, as did her parents. Hill’s book is a very personal account of her Scientology experience, while Wright’s take is more scholarly, but both books examine the dichotomy of an organization espousing independent thought as essential to enlightenment while using coercive and intimidating tactics to maintain its membership base.
An American woman’s journey from embassy secretary to African royalty is this year’s choice for the One Maryland One Book selection. King Peggy: An American Secretary, her Royal Destiny and the Inspiring Story of How she Changed an African Village chronicles the story of Peggielene Bartels of Silver Spring, Maryland, who learns in 2008 she is the new king of Otuam, a poor Ghanaian fishing village of 7,000. This book was previously reviewed on Between the Covers last year.
Now in its sixth year, the Maryland Humanities Council program brings people together from across the state through a shared reading experience, book-centered discussions and other programming. A calendar of free public events will be available on the MHC website this summer. Last year’s book, The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway, attracted almost 7,000 readers in Maryland’s only statewide book club.
Eddie Huang is co-owner of the hugely successful Baohaus, a Taiwanese bun shop in New York’s East Village. Fresh off the Boat, his provocative new memoir, is a refreshingly current take on the immigrant story and a very funny book. Huang recounts his upbringing in Orlando, Florida. He attended a mostly white school, struggling to stay true to his Taiwanese culture, while also wanting to fit in. For his school lunch, his mother usually prepared a home-cooked Taiwanese meal. He didn’t want food that smelled or looked any different from that of his peers. He talked his mom into allowing him to take the processed pre-packed meals and juice boxes.
He describes going into wealthy white homes where the kids had so many toys, he didn’t know what to play with first. He does not shy away from his tough upbringing but maintains a light, irreverent tone, no matter the subject. In time, he came to embrace his own culture. He is proud of his Asian-American background but refuses to be anything but himself. He criticizes Hollywood’s emasculated version of Asian-American men, loves partying, hip-hop, basketball and football.
Throughout Huang’s life, his love of food remains constant and his passion for food culture is infectious. Equally infectious is Huang’s humor, perhaps best captured in the audiobook version. Huang is the narrator and his hip, street-smart humor comes off best in his distinct Brooklyn accent. Besides audiobook listeners, Fresh Off the Boat will also find fans among memoir readers, pop-culture enthusiasts and foodies.
Joan Crawford, move over. Kathi Ruta is here, and her daughter, Domenica “Nikki” Ruta, has penned a memoir every bit as disturbing as Christina Crawford’s. In With or Without You, Ruta recounts a childhood devoid of innocence, as she is both witness to and victim of numerous crimes. Nikki is the only child of single mother Kathi. They live on the Ruta family compound in Massachusetts. Unlike another family compound in wealthy Hyannisport, the clannish Rutas reside on marshland in blue-collar Danvers in dilapidated housing. Kathi is a manicurist, at one point a prosperous car service owner, but most regularly a drug dealer who liberally indulges in her merchandise.
Ruta shares horrifying tales of growing up with Kathi. The squalid living conditions are punctuated by a revolving series of drug-buying customers who serve as surrogate family; one “uncle” is a known pedophile. Kathi promotes drug use, providing Nikki with her first Oxycontin and stuffing her Christmas stocking with a nickel bag. She keeps Nikki home from school to watch classic movies on TV (ironically, a favorite was Mommie Dearest) and harangues her daughter with language that could blister paint off the walls. Yet Kathi knows her intelligent, book-loving daughter deserves more and cobbles together a private school education which includes boarding school and college, partly funded by drug money. During an especially flush period, they travel to Europe.
Dysfunctional parent-child relationships are complicated. Ruta conveys her mother not as one-dimensional, but larger than life and complex; intensely loving and capable of pushing her daughter to succeed conventionally while simultaneously sabotaging her efforts. With her mother’s demons dogging her along the way, Ruta struggles to launch her own adulthood while deciding what role her mother can continue to play in her life. Recent memoirs in this same vein include Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle and The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok.
The shroud of secrecy which surrounds an elusive artist is at the heart of Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall by Will Ellsworth-Jones. This former journalist presents an in-depth look at the reclusive artist from his beginnings as a nobody vandal all the way to the Academy Awards as producer of a nominated documentary. As unlikely as it would seem when reading about the beginnings of his journey, Banksy has somehow managed to become one of the world’s best known and wealthiest living artists. His pieces, which once drew anger and police attention, are now securing millions of dollars at auction.
While Banksy, via his publicity organization Pest Control, refused Ellsworth-Jones’ requests for interviews, the author manages to use secondary sources to shed light on this enigma. He talks with friends, acquaintances, and fellow artists to recount how this mystery man from Bristol, England, who refuses to be photographed or reveal his given name, turned the art world on its head. Readers will also meet fans who wait for hours to obtain limited edition prints and follow the author as he searches the streets for some of Banksy’s works. Ellsworth-Jones also addresses the paradox that Banksy’s commercial success has created for him and questions whether he is the sellout as so many of his contemporaries claim. This is a fascinating glimpse inside the world of street and outsider art, a social commentary, and a philosophical debate about the definition of art.
Many Americans probably got their first glimpse of Banksy (along with a distorted voice and hidden face) and his world in his 2009 documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop. This intriguing Oscar-nominated film prompted one New York Times critic to coin the term “prankumentary,” leaving viewers wondering whether the entire film is yet another hoax perpetuated by Banksy and his cult of followers.
Abraham Lincoln was an inexperienced president in 1862 when he faced his troubled country's most daunting crises to date. With the new year came the inescapable truth of a nation divided, broken, and at war. To realize his vision for the union would take patience, even-keeled fortitude, and the ability to draw in friend and foe alike. In David Von Drehle's terrific and highly readable book, Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year, the historian reconstructs in a dramatic but disciplined tone the year's greatest challenges for the self-schooled Illinois lawyer. Unfolding month by month, Lincoln's growth as a leader is as transformative for the 16th president as it is for the state and stabilization of the union.
There is no doubt that issues were burning for Lincoln and the country. Aside from a civil war and unabated "secession fever,” the president was facing a government overwhelmed, a treasury without money, and a war department reported in shambles. Europe was exhibiting impatient leanings toward the south. At home, Lincoln's domestic situation presented its own challenges and heartache. The moral crisis of slavery, which would eventually catapult Lincoln to greatness, was looming.
Von Drehle's careful chronology of this tumultuous year begins with New Year's Day and concludes a year later with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In captivating narrative guided by hefty research, layers of political, military and diplomatic maneuvering are peeled away as Von Drehle attempts to define the man Lincoln became as a result of the year's high stakes. Micro-biographies of the usual players add color, as do the plethora of Lincoln quotes, many poignant. Readers of Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough will recognize here the republic at a crossroads and the bellwether of a nation who saw beyond.