Sunday, February 9, 2014

Reading Only Ever Gave Me Hope

Title:The World's Strongest Librarian
Author: Josh Hanagarne
Publisher: Gotham Books
Publication Date: May 2013

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Josh Hanagarne couldn't be invisible if he tried. Although he wouldn't officially be diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome until his freshman year of high school, Josh was six years old and onstage in a school Thanksgiving play when he first began exhibiting symptoms. By the time he was twenty, the young Mormon had reached his towering adult height of 6'7" when — while serving on a mission for the Church of Latter Day Saints — his Tourette's tics escalated to nightmarish levels.

Determined to conquer his affliction, Josh underwent everything from quack remedies to lethargy-inducing drug regimes to Botox injections that paralyzed his vocal cords and left him voiceless for three years. Undeterred, Josh persevered to marry and earn a degree in Library Science. At last, an eccentric, autistic strongman — and former Air Force Tech Sergeant and guard at an Iraqi prison — taught Josh how to "throttle" his tics into submission through strength-training.

Today, Josh is a librarian in the main branch of Salt Lake City's public library and founder of a popular blog about books and weight lifting—and the proud father of four-year-old Max, who has already started to show his own symptoms of Tourette's.

The World's Strongest Librarian illuminates the mysteries of this little-understood disorder, as well as the very different worlds of strongman training and modern libraries. With humor and candor, this unlikely hero traces his journey to overcome his disability — and navigate his wavering Mormon faith — to find love and create a life worth living.

My Review:
I've talked before about Salt Lake County Library's Reader's Choice program - how twice a year the system sets out twenty (or so) books from varying genres that they think will be worth their patrons' time and asks people to read and vote on which of the batch are the best (each library branch does fun things like drawings or games to encourage people to read these books - some patrons are even ambitious enough to read them all).  The last couple of groups of Reader's Choice books have been a little... well... lacking. As least, as far as I'm concerned. I'm certain that someone else found something they liked.

Anyway - I'd heard about The World's Strongest Librarian from an article in the paper last year highlighting Josh Hanagarne when the book was released. I thought it was neat that a guy from Salt Lake City was getting a book published and he worked for the Salt Lake City Library, but I didn't think too much of it at the time.  But then the book came up on Reader's Choice and I decided to give it a shot.

First off - I'm not a non-fiction type of gal. Memoirs especially kind of mess me up emotionally. It's either too sad that I can't finish or it's too happy that it makes me feel bad about my own failings and misfortunes (and then I feel bad for feeling bad because there are starving children in Africa and how dare I think I have it so rough!) I'd rather stick to my world of made-up stories and let the real world get on with the business of continually screwing things up. But this book... actually made me feel like maybe there are other people who have similar doubts about the future.

It helped that Josh's background was a lot like mine - living in small close-knit communities in Utah and Nevada, being the freakishly tall bookworm that's mildly skilled in sports (Josh got better at athletic pursuits - let's be fair here), growing up in the LDS (Mormon) faith. But that's about where the similarities ended. Because I have absolutely no idea what it's like to deal with Tourette's Syndrome. Oh, I've heard people talk about it and I've glanced at articles by medical professionals - but it's never touched my life at all. But reading about Josh's experiences and just how real he made it (especially writing for an audience who may or may not understand) helped put things into perspective.  I also loved the humor he displayed - almost made it feel like I was listening to a dear friend talk about his life (even though I've never met Josh - though I know people who have).

I think this is probably the most candid and real memoir I've ever read.  He doesn't gloss over the really tough stuff - but he also gives so much credit to others where some memoirs probably would make it sound terrible.  I especially loved how he talked about his parents - how they weren't sure how to help their son with Tourettes when they first thought there might have been a problem, but over time they turned to experts (and some not-so-experts) and worked hard to help Josh wherever they could.

Another thing I want to mention is how Josh talks about his faith. Like I said earlier, I'm Mormon and I've grown up in the church and I'm still active in my faith.  Sometimes when Mormons write memoirs meant for a secular crowd, they either go too far into "over-sharing" things that are meant to be sacred or they treat their faith like it's something to be ashamed of or even apologize for it.  But here, Josh actually struck a perfect balance between the two - he treats sacred things with the respect they deserve, while also not being afraid to poke fun at some of the LDS culture's more, shall we say, unique characteristics (being a single LDS female, I particularly appreciated his description of the LDS dating scene. Nothing ever changes).  It was refreshing to see that balance in a book like this (also - his description of the Missionary Training Center and the life of an LDS missionary is bang-on).

Ugh - I feel like I'm not really giving this book a good enough review. Can I just say that I read it in a four-and-a-half hour sitting? (minus the couple of times I got up to switch out the laundry) It was a compelling, interesting, enlightening book and it made me think about some things in my own life and my own challenges. I mean, I'm probably not going to run out and start lifting weights (I have zero upper body strength and I have since I was a kid in gymnastics class) - but I can certainly understand the act of looking for ways to overcome adversity and the acknowledgement in the end that the battle is never really over and moments of clarity come when you least expect them and leave just as quickly as they came.  I really want people to read this book - either just because you enjoy memoirs or because you need a realistic-yet-positive look at what this life is like and that things will be okay in the end. In the end, this book left me feeling positive and hopeful. I can't ask much more of a book, now can I?

In short: Run, don't walk, to your nearest library or bookstore and get this book. You won't be sorry.

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