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Lori Hench

As a child, Lori Hench fell in love with Beverly Cleary's books and has had her nose in a book ever since. Now an adult, she finds saying "but I have to read this for work" is a wonderful excuse for avoiding housework and other distasteful chores. When she's not reading, she works at the Randallstown Branch and enjoys recommending literary fiction, memoirs, and current nonfiction. She admits to still liking children's books and, in a pinch, will read absolutely anything.

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Librarians

A Family Rent Asunder

A Family Rent Asunder

posted by:
April 22, 2013 - 7:55am

Ghana Must GoTaiye Selasi’s debut novel, Ghana Must Go, begins with an end. Sai family patriarch Kweku lies in the dewy grass before dawn, slowly dying in his garden amidst a riot of African color and beauty. Get up, call for help, the reader wants to shout at this Hopkins-educated physician; instead, Kweku passively waits for his heart to stop beating.

 

Selasi’s title refers to the forced expulsion of Ghanaians from neighboring Nigeria as well as to the distinctive, cheap carryall bags in which they stuffed their belongings. Dr. Kweku Sai is from Ghana and his wife Fola is Nigerian. They meet in Pennsylvania where he is completing surgical training and she is in law school. They marry, have four intelligent and driven children, move to Boston, and continue to rack up professional and personal accomplishments. The Sai family epitomizes immigrant success until one unjust and cataclysmic event causes the foundation of the family to crumble and collapse. Written in three sections, “Gone,” “Going,” and lastly “Go,” Selasi allows her characters to reveal the insecurities which enabled their family bonds to stretch, break, and perhaps reform. Recollections, some of which are poignant and others shocking, are integral to understanding each of the family members.

 

This is a story of Africa and of America, of third world attainment and stellar achievements by anyone’s first world standards, and of a family unraveled and lives destroyed. It is a story of putting one foot in front of the other when one foot is in Africa and the other foot stateside. It is a story of leaving and of rebuilding. With its image-rich prose, acidic observations, and perceptive take on family relationships, Ghana Must Go is also very much a story to enjoy.

 

Lori

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Thinking for One’s Self

Going ClearBeyond BeliefWhen 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.

Lori

 
 

The Thorn in Your Side

With or Without YouJoan 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.

Lori

 
 

The Precious Ordinary

The Precious Ordinary

posted by:
March 8, 2013 - 8:01am

BenedictionArtist Grant Wood’s work evokes the essence of the Midwestern United States, especially as depicted in his iconic painting American Gothic. Wood’s equivalent in the literary world must surely be Kent Haruf, who conjures up the same quiet and steadfast spirit in his novels of small town living. In his newest book, Benediction, Haruf once again uses the fictional setting of rural Holt, Colorado.

 

Old “Dad” Lewis is dying. A fixture in Holt, he has owned the downtown hardware store since he was a young man, and has been married to Mary for just as long. Mary and Dad notify their middle-aged daughter Lorraine of her father’s terminal illness, and Lorraine returns to her childhood home to help and support her mother as they care for Dad in his final weeks. As Dad deteriorates, Lorraine and Mary must figure out a new footing for their own relationship as well as determine how Dad’s death will figure on their future. The descriptions of the matter-of-fact yet tender care Mary provides for Dad as he becomes increasingly incapacitated are a beautiful testament to the deep love between the couple.

 

Haruf has two themes running through Benediction. Not surprisingly, one involves Dad’s reflections on his past, with an emphasis on choices made by Dad in pivotal circumstances. Dad ruminates on wayward son Frank who broke contact with his parents years ago; the widow of a former hardware store employee discovered by Dad to be embezzling funds; and Dad’s own hardscrabble parents who never met their grandchildren. At the same time, Haruf highlights different kinds of love found in daily life, including platonic love between friends, erotic love stemming from passion, and unconditional love between man and God. As a disgraced preacher in the story explains, it is the ordinary life of good people which is most precious and Haruf illustrates this tenet perfectly with his spare prose.

Lori

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For the Love of Google

For the Love of Google

posted by:
February 21, 2013 - 8:01am

Mr. Panumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreA riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma:  Mr. Churchill’s quote applies neatly to author Robin Sloan’s debut novel, the charming Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Originally published as a short story in 2009, Sloan says “it gathered a following and ultimately grew” into his first book. Imagine a story about an ancient and secret society, one which involves puzzles, complicated codes, handmade typeface, and the quest for immortality. Now imagine a thriller which involves computer-hacking geeks, advanced cyber-technology, trademarked font, and big business. Finally, try to imagine a book combining these disparate elements and the fascinating result will be Mr. Penumbra.

 

Clay Jannon is a twenty-something laid-off web designer living in San Francisco. Financially desperate circumstances and newspaper help-wanted ads land him a job as the night clerk in Ajax Penumbra’s store. While Clay is able to satisfy the job requirement of scaling a ladder three stories high to retrieve books from the skyscraper-like shelves, he quickly develops a problem following another workplace rule: he is never to look inside the books. Before long, Clay cracks open a forbidden spine and falls into a world of codex vitae, Festina Lente, and a members-only chained library, all  while hanging out with the Googlers at their compound-like workplace campus, harnessing the on-line research superpower of Hadoop, and tapping into a digital database of museum inventories worldwide.

 

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is both engaging and clever. Sloan splices together old-fashioned intrigue and modern computerized marvels using a mix of real and imagined constructs. Ultimately though, the true Holy Grails and miracles which Sloan is offering in this story may turn out to be the power of friendship and the amazing technological wonders of our times.

Lori

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Blood or Water?

Blood or Water?

posted by:
February 11, 2013 - 8:45am

yBooks about children in the foster care system tend to be a largely grim bunch. Fiction or fact, they are often filled with requisite accounts of, at best, benign neglect and frequently tell a far more horrifying tale. In her debut novel, Y, author Marjorie Celona explores the concept of family ties that bind both by blood and by choice.

 

The headline reads “Abandoned Infant: Police Promise No Charges” after a newborn baby is found in the early morning on the steps of the YMCA. The revolving door of foster families grinds into motion as baby Shandi gets shuffled about, her name changed to Shannon and her arm broken by a foster father. As a preschooler, Shannon lands in the loving home of single mother Miranda and her daughter Lydia-Rose who is the same age as Shannon. Miranda’s home is modest and her income small, yet she is determined to form a family which includes loving Shannon as her daughter, as Lydia-Rose’s sister.

 

Could the story end here? Instead, Celona goes on to explore the effects of abandonment and subsequent feelings of alienation on Shannon as she grows up in Miranda’s home. At the same time, she alternates Shannon’s story with that of her parents and grandparents, revealing the trajectory of events which led up to the morning at the Y. Celona uses Shannon as an omniscient narrator and allows her to completely relate her own story; this includes her search for her “real” parents. At the same time, she is recounting her biological family’s history, chronicling incidents occurring long before her birth. Ultimately, Shannon must figure out what constitutes “family” for her. For more about growing up in the foster care system, try Janet Fitch’s White Oleander or Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s biography, Three Little Words.

 

Lori

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Culture Clash

Culture Clash

posted by:
January 14, 2013 - 8:50am

Back to BloodTom Wolfe is back. Eighty-one years old, a controversial player on the literary scene since 1965, and still decked out in his hallmark white suit, Wolfe’s newest book proves he is ever a master of pointed social commentary as he skewers Miami and its denizens in his novel, Back to Blood.

 

Miami: it isn’t just for snowbirds anymore. Officer Nestor Camacho is a young and buff policeman out on patrol on the Biscayne Bay when he is pressed into service to bring down a man clinging to the apex of a 70 foot boat mast. Camacho, in a Herculean show of strength, “rescues” the man, according to accolades heaped upon him by the Miami Herald. Or rather, make that the “Yo No Creo El Miami Herald,” (“I don’t believe the Miami Herald”) as it’s known in the large and influential Cuban population. Camacho is now a pariah among his Cuban family and community for taking down a Cuban refugee before he reached dry land, destroying his chance for asylum.

 

Wolfe writes his cast of characters with a politically incorrect and sometimes sordid pen. A WASPy newspaper editor thinks he’s found relevance in his association with the Russian benefactor filling the city’s new art museum, who instead may be foisting forgeries into the collection. A gorgeous but naive Cuban nurse thinks she is movin’ on up by having an affair with her Americano employer, a publicity hungry sex-addiction doctor for whom the phrase “physician, heal thyself” seems to be tailor-made. A Haitian professor is ashamed of his heritage yet earns his living teaching Creole while obsessively hoping his sweet daughter can “pass” for white. Nestor is the hub around which these stories turn, presented in Wolfe’s trademark frenetically vivid style. In the same vein as Wolfe’s earlier take on New York in The Bonfire of the Vanities, fans of social satire should enjoy Back to Blood.

 

Lori

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Fire on the Mountain

Fire on the Mountain

posted by:
December 31, 2012 - 9:15am

Flight BehaviorA forest aflame is what Dellarobia Turnbow sees as she pauses on her march up the mountain. She is on a mission to destroy her disappointing marriage by consummating a flirtation with the telephone man. In the smokeless silence, the ambivalently Christian Della knows she has been the recipient of a kind of grace and backtracks to return home. Barbara Kingsolver follows Dellarobia and the aftermath of her vision in her most recent entry on the New York Times bestsellers list, Flight Behavior.

 

Della and her husband Cub live with their two young children in the shadow of his domineering parents on the family farm situated in a rural Tennessee valley. Scarcely adequate high school educations and a severe dearth of employment opportunities mean the Turnbows, along with most folks in their community, are scrambling each month to survive. In danger of losing their land, Cub’s parents view Money Tree Logging Company’s bid to clear cut a portion of their property as an answer to their fiscal prayers. Silent about her vision and uncertain as to its import, Della convinces the family to hike the land, where they discover Della’s fire is actually an immense roost of Monarch butterflies.

 

As in earlier books such as Prodigal Summer, Kingsolver intertwines an environmental issue—in this instance, climate change—as in integral piece of the larger story. Along with the King Billies, as the butterflies are colloquially known, come scientists, tourists, and opportunists which include the local media, all with a different interest in the flock. Della and her family struggle to come to terms with the changes brought by the insects both to their community and individually. With a background in biology, Kingsolver marries the scientific tale of migratory butterflies to the human struggle for meaning and self-fulfillment in Flight Behavior.

 

Lori

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Natty Boh and Pitchers from the Sunpapers

Baltimore BeerDays RememberedBaltimore CountyCare for a stroll down memory lane? How about a local history lesson? Check out this trio of books focusing on Bawlmer and its ‘burbs. Baltimore Beer: A Satisfying History of Charm City Brewing joins Days Remembered: Iconic Photography of the Baltimore Sun and Baltimore County: Historical Reflections and Favorite Scenes in a remembrance of things past.

 

Local author, former Sun food columnist, and founder of Baltimore Beer Week, Rob Kasper knows his food and drink. In Baltimore Beer, he traces the growth of the brewing industry beginning with the influence of the German immigrants who brought their craft with them from Europe. Loaded with anecdotes and moving from early biergartens to modern brewpubs, Kasper explores the breweries’ social and economic influence on the Baltimore area. “Ain’t the beer cold?”

 

Baltimore residents Barton and Elizabeth Cockey teamed up to produce a charming look at ye olde suburbia in their book Baltimore County. Divided into sections such as Transportation, Public Buildings and Schools, and Wars, this book takes the reader on a tour of county peoples and places and offers an informative narrative laced with personal recollections. Instead of photographs, the book is illustrated with artist Elizabeth’s paintings of the area.

 

2012 marked the 175th year anniversary of the Baltimore Sun. While no longer a “penny paper,” the power of its photographs to inform and inspire remains a constant. Days Remembered is a collection of images from the Sun spanning from the 1901 debut portrait photograph of Judge Sherry of the Maryland Court of Appeals to the Blue Angels flight over Fort McHenry this past summer. Grouped by decade and including pictures of Babe Ruth, marble step-scrubbing, Blaze Starr, the Berrigan brothers, and the integration of Southern High, this visual history perfectly captures the past one hundred-plus years of Maryland living.

 

Lori

 
 

The Show Must Go On

The Show Must Go On

posted by:
November 19, 2012 - 9:45am

The Round HouseBewildermentGoblin SecretsBehind the Beautiful Forevers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hurricane Sandy wrought substantial damage to the building housing the offices of the National Book Foundation in New York City. Despite this disruption, the Foundation, which is the presenter of the prestigious National Book Award prizes, held its awards dinner on November 14 and announced the winners in four different categories.

 

Native American Louise Erdrich won the top honor for Fiction with her book, The Round House. Taking place on a North Dakota reservation, The Round House is a sensitive coming of age story and an unflinching look at contemporary tribal life as well as a tangled legalese whodunit. This beautifully written selection was discussed earlier in Between the Covers, as was the winner in the Nonfiction category, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. Boo, a journalist, stayed in one of Mumbai’s poorest slum communities for several years and carefully chronicled the stories of the people and families living as the have-nots in a city acknowledged to be the wealthiest in India.

 

National Book awards are also presented for Young People’s Literature, won by William Alexander for his tale, Goblin Secrets, and its Poetry prize was bestowed upon David Ferry for his volume entitled Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations. As indicated by the eponymous title, eighty-eight year old Ferry includes both his original poems as well as his translations of other works which support the themes of his verses. Goblin Secrets is described by Kirkus Reviews as a mix of “steampunk and witchy magic” and features Rownie, a boy searching for his missing older brother in the city of Zombay. Opening with a witch who needs her clockwork chicken legs wound up with a crank so she can walk, Ferry has crafted a unique debut novel.

 

Lori