Between the Covers / Shhhh... we're reading.   Photo of reading after bedtime
Paula Gallagher

Paula Gallagher reads widely across many genres, including literary fiction, children’s picture books, graphic novels and narrative nonfiction of all kinds. She is a pop culture aficionado, a theatre buff and an accomplished amateur cook. You can count on her to hand you a compelling read at the Pikesville Branch. Paula is the book reviewer for The Baltimore Sun podcast "Roughly Speaking," hosted by noted columnist Dan Rodricks.

RSS this blog

Tags

Adult

+ Fiction

+ Nonfiction

Teen

+ Fiction

   Nonfiction

Children

+ Fiction

+ Nonfiction

Author Interviews

Awards

BCPL Reading Challenge

Free Play With BCPL

In the News

New Next Week

Popcorn Reviews With BCPL

   Movies 

   TV Shows 

 

Bloggers

 


Paula

Movie Freak

posted by: February 26, 2016 - 6:00am

Cover art for Movie FreakFilm critic Owen Gleiberman, best known for his two-decade stint at Entertainment Weekly, reflects on his passion-turned-career in Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies. His movie obsession began in the late 1960s when his parents loaded him and his younger siblings into the family Buick for a night at the drive-in outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The experience held a “disturbingly sinister excitement” for the young Gleiberman, who was just seven years-old. Did his father choose wholesome family viewing? Oh, no — these were movies HE wanted to see, with no regard for whether they were appropriate for his young children. Gleiberman recalls many adult-oriented drive-in movies he experienced as a third-grader, most notably Rosemary’s Baby and The Boston Strangler. Although they never discussed these films afterward, the experience made him feel closer to his distant parents.

 

By junior high he was addicted to monster movies, and then in high school he gravitated to scandalous films like Last Tango in Paris and A Clockwork Orange, which left a big impression. But the movie that shifted his entire worldview was John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, which he admits scared the “bejesus” out of him, and fulfilled his craziest drive-in dreams for the extreme.

 

His first forays into criticism came during college at The University of Michigan. He was obsessive in his film viewing, referring to it as “the religion that sustained me.” He muses that the true movie buff leads a solitary existence, even when they are with other people. Movies help you leave yourself behind, and the essential experience has almost nothing to do with the quality of what you’re seeing.

 

Readers who love pop culture will enjoy Movie Freak. Gleiberman has always been a critic who speaks his own mind, proud of the fact that he doesn’t go along with the crowd when it comes to his reviews. He isn’t swayed by the Hollywood machine — he calls it as he sees it, even when that leaves him as odd man out, as it did when he panned the Julia Roberts/Richard Gere romantic comedy Pretty Woman. He is proud of championing indie films like the documentary Crumb, and unapologetic in his general dislike of foreign films.

 

Digressions into his personal life could have been left out, but when Gleiberman sticks to the business of Hollywood and the changing face of film criticism in the time of relentless blogging and social media, Movie Freak shines.

 


 
 

The Portable Veblen

posted by: February 19, 2016 - 6:00am

Cover art for The Portable VeblenIf you’re a fan of the whimsical highbrow movies of filmmaker Wes Anderson, you’ll love The Portable Veblen, the new novel by Elizabeth McKenzie. It’s a compelling modern-day love story set in Palo Alto, California, with an appealing quirky cast of characters, including a persistent and possibly symbolic squirrel.

 

Paul and Veblen are engaged, but will the marriage ever happen? They come from such different worlds. Named after the economist Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” Veblen does administrative work at a hospital. In her free time she dabbles in translating documents from Norwegian and studies the teachings of her namesake’s work. How can she possibly be comfortable wearing the ostentatious diamond engagement ring Paul was so proud to give her?

 

She lives modestly in a rented bungalow she lovingly restored from a dilapidated condition. Veblen is quite fond of the squirrel who has taken up residence in the attic, a point of contention between herself and her beloved, who has a goal of eliminating the rodent. Veblen sees the squirrel as a new friend who wants to tell her something. Paul embraces her many personality quirks, finding her endearing. But it seems as if he doesn’t really know her (it’s been a whirlwind courtship) and meeting her domineering, hypochondriac mother and enabling stepfather might be the thing that tears them apart.

 

Raised on a commune by hippie parents, Paul revels in his new money and status as a neurosurgeon. He wants to distance himself from his odd upbringing, especially his mentally disabled brother Justin, who gets all of the family’s attention. He’s most excited by the device he’s pioneering, the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch, intended to help treat head trauma on the battlefield. But Paul has fallen in with the ruthless head of a major medical and pharmaceutical company that has its own plans for Paul’s invention.

 

The Portable Veblen is a storybook for adults. The over-the-top characters are all memorable, and author McKenzie sets up scenes that reveal as much about Paul and Veblen’s individual pasts as they hint about their future together. So much literature these days weighs the reader down with heavy plot lines and depressing circumstances, and although The Portable Veblen trades in dysfunctional families and relationships, it soars as a comic satire. This a book I looked forward to picking up and falling into, and now I’m sorry to leave Paul and Veblen behind.

 


 
 

When Breath Becomes Air

posted by: February 12, 2016 - 7:00am

When Breath Becomes AirPaul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is a publishing phenomenon. Released mid-January, it debuted at number one on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list, where it remains. This poetic memoir of life and impending death has the feel of an important book, one that will be read and talked about for years to come. It shines a light on what it means to be human.

 

Kalanithi was about to complete his residency in neurosurgery at Stanford, when he began experiencing crippling back pain and weight loss. Initial X-rays looked fine, but the possibility of cancer was always in his mind. He chalked up his symptoms to long, grueling days in the operating room and his aging 36-year-old body. He admitted that while he was an authoritative surgeon, he was a meek patient.

 

Weeks later, when fierce chest pains began, he was forced to confront what he knew all along. A CT scan and subsequent tests revealed stage IV lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air is a beautiful examination of a life cut short, a memoir rich in introspection and unsparing in emotion. When his health problems began, Kalanithi was under a tremendous amount of stress. The completion of his residency was all-consuming. His wife Lucy, an internist herself, had some doubts about their marriage and was planning some “alone time.” His diagnosis proved a game-changer.

 

Not only did his wife stay, but the couple decided to accelerate their plans to have a baby, continuing the circle of life. Kalanithi shared his most intimate hopes and fears with readers, as he witnessed his daughter’s birth from his own fragile, uncertain state of health.

 

He underwent various treatments, soldiering forward not knowing how much time he had remaining. He continued to work on the manuscript that became this book, all the while buoyed by faith and his large family. When he died in March 2015, Lucy completed the book, adding an epilogue of her own to fill in her husband’s last weeks. This section is both wrenching and cathartic for anyone who has sat with a loved one during their final hours. Kalanathi’s dying wish was to leave behind a legacy in print. A true polymath, Kalanithi held both a BA and MA in English literature; he was also a student of philosophy. All of this informs his writing. When Breath Becomes Air ensures he will live on, remembered not only for his story, but for his eloquent words.


 
 

The Sound of Gravel

posted by: February 5, 2016 - 7:30am

Cover art for The Sound of GravelSome books take a little while to get going, but that’s not the case with the Ruth Wariner’s memoir The Sound of Gravel. It’s hard to stop reading after the first stunning sentence: “I am my mother’s fourth child and my father’s thirty-ninth.” Wariner grew up in what was supposed to be a utopian Mormon colony, founded by her grandfather. The rural farming community Colonia LeBaron was established in Mexico as a haven for those who believed in Joseph Smith’s original teachings — including polygamy.

 

Wariner never knew her father, once the prophet of the community. He was murdered by a member of a rival church — headed by his own brother — when she was just three months old. Her mother Kathy’s remarriage as the second wife to a colony member three years later defined her chaotic, hard-scrabble childhood. Short-tempered and selfish, Lane showed little fatherly attention to his stepchildren and children, eventually becoming predatory. He was a poor provider despite his strong work ethic, housing Kathy and her children in a rodent-infested, two-bedroom house with one unfinished bathroom, an outhouse for the meanwhile, and no electricity.

 

Wariner’s unique coming-of-age story is marked by poverty as much as it is by belonging to a religious cult. While Lane worked on their farm, it was up to Kathy to travel with the kids by bus to pick up government assistance checks over the border in El Paso like other colony wives as part of a complex, necessary scam.

 

Complicating life was a “difficult” older sister who was prone to fits of violence, a developmentally delayed older brother and a constant stream of new half-siblings to help take care of. Although her mother was loving and devoted, she always chose her husband over her children when it came time to take sides, defending Lane time and again for repeated abuses.

 

The Sound of Gravel is as engrossing as it is horrific. Wariner’s honest, revealing prose transports the reader to a world few would choose to visit, let alone live in. Wariner’s grit and rejection of a god that would will such horrible things gave her the strength to leave the community at the age of 15. Readers who enjoyed Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle or Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club will want to pick up The Sound of Gravel.


 
 

All the Birds in the Sky

posted by: January 29, 2016 - 7:30am

Cover art for All the Birds in the SkyCharlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky is one of the most intriguing new novels of the year, partially because it defies definition. It’s fantasy, speculative, sci-fi, humor, coming-of-age and awkward epic romance, with the hipster references of a not-so-distant future. Think of it as magical realism for the digital age.

 

Patricia and Laurence are the quintessential outcasts at school, left out and bullied to varying degrees. Both suffer from clueless, inane parents who fail to recognize and appreciate what their children are capable of — and Patricia is burdened with a sociopathic older sister to boot.

 

Laurence is a super-tech geek, possessing a brilliant mind capable of easily cobbling together a wristwatch-sized, two-second time machine, which jumps the wearer two seconds in time. He has built a becoming-sentient supercomputer, which he keeps in his bedroom closet. Patricia happens to be a witch, whose powers first manifest as an ability to speak with birds and one particular tree. She’ll later hone these skills at a school for magic, where she finds she doesn’t fit in either — it’s no Hogwarts. Laurence’s parents pack him up and out to a military school, where the bullying intensifies. And while these outcasts don’t immediately embrace friendship (they are really very different), it seems inevitable. The two circle in and out of each other’s social orbits, and their coincidental meetups intensify once Patricia buys a Caddy, a guitar pick-shaped social media super tablet that enhances the user’s life in inexplicable ways.

 

The story gains momentum when the Earth is suddenly wracked with erupting superstorms. Is Patricia’s band of avenging-angel witches the key to saving the world, or will Laurence’s hacker-inventor cohort succeed in opening a wormhole to a new, better planet? Anders’ clever pre-apocalyptic novel never loses sight of the running themes of being understood, of being valued for who you are and the difficulty of making meaningful connections when you’re out on the fringe.

 


 
 

Oyster

posted by: December 17, 2015 - 7:00pm

Cover art for OysterIn Oyster: A Gastronomic History (with Recipes), Drew Smith delves into everything you ever wanted to know about the briny bivalve, and then some. Smith takes a fascinating, in-depth look at the oyster's place in history — important in the diet of many cultures throughout the years but also to their economies. You would be hard pressed to find a better source of overall nutrition than the oyster. Low in fat and calories, it’s high in protein, calcium, vitamin B12, thiamine, riboflavin vitamin C and zinc, with trace amounts of other vitamins. Oysters eventually became an important industry in the colonies, with jobs for harvesting, opening, washing, measuring, selling and, eventually, canning. These jobs often went to those who would otherwise have had difficulty finding employment, including African Americans, women, immigrants and children. While people think of crabs when they hear Baltimore, we have been an oyster mecca for far longer. Baltimore was the first to become a canning center (way before any other city) in the early 1840s, where the stock was also labeled and shipped.  

 

Oysters have long been celebrated in writing as well as art — and of course they have a long-standing reputation as an aphrodisiac. Smith has included numerous color illustrations, photographs and maps to enhance the reading experience. There are recipes throughout the book, and even recommendations on what to drink with oysters. This scholarly yet entertaining and accessible look at oysters would make a great gift for the foodie and/or historian on your gift list. Fans of Mark Kurlansky’s microhistories Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World or Salt: A World History will be entranced by Oyster.

 


 
 

It's. Nice. Outside.

posted by: December 10, 2015 - 7:00pm

Cover art for It's. Nice. Outside.Jim Kokoris’ It’s. Nice. Outside. is a road trip novel unlike any other. Fifty-something John Nichols (former college basketball player, high school English teacher and author) is on his way from the Chicago suburbs to his oldest daughter's wedding in South Carolina in a minivan. His companion? His developmentally disabled, autistic 19-year-old son Ethan who is afraid to fly.

 

The family is fraught with issues. Nichols is divorced, due to an affair with a wildly inappropriate woman (he blames it on the stress of parenting a special needs son). Now that woman is repeatedly calling again out of nowhere. Despite this, he still loves his ex-wife and holds out hope of reconciliation. Meanwhile, no one likes his daughter's husband-to-be. His middle daughter, a famous sketch comedian, has been feuding with her older sister and may not show up for the wedding.

 

Nichols makes his way south, using up his frequent stay points at Marriott properties that have pools (swimming calms Ethan) and eating at Cracker Barrels (Ethan likes routine). All the while, he’s trying to sort out what happens next in life for both him and his son. A trio of stuffed bears along for the ride provides Nichols with a cathartic outlet, as he runs them through outrageous comic routines tailored to entertain himself as much as they do Ethan.

 

Kokoris does a great job fleshing out believable, empathetic characters as he portrays the dysfunctional family dynamic. He shows sensitivity in his depiction of Ethan while spotlighting the everyday challenges of parenting a special needs adult. This novel is both laugh out loud funny and poignant, and will appeal to readers who enjoy books by Jonathan Tropper or Jonathan Evison.


 
 

MARTians

posted by: December 3, 2015 - 7:00pm

Cover art for MARTiansImagine a future where new high school graduates are funneled into one of two life options: prison (that's where they'll end up anyway) or a job at one of two superstores, AllMART or Q-Mart. This is the premise of Blythe Woolston’s MARTians, which follows Zoë Zindleman, a teen who is an unexpected early graduate of her now-closed efficiency high school.

 

Zoë’s homeroom technician explains that once upon a time a student like her might go to college to prepare for a professional position, but that was then and this is now. She’s lucky to have a job referral for both stores. Home life is a problem, because her house has been on the market for a long time, and so have all the other abandoned, looted dwellings on their cul-de-sac. And now that Zoë has job security, her mother, AnnaMom has decided to move away without her.

 

Lucky for Zoë, she meets Timmer, a fellow graduate who has had the advantage of working for AllMART for several months now. He’s also on his own, and he helps her navigate the world of the newly independent. He offers her a place to live at an abandoned strip mall, which serves as home to a variety of scrappy misfits. Of course, she could choose to live in the AllMART dormitory—after all, AllMART acts in loco parentis for its employees. AllMART is so much more than a job, her personal human resources manager reminds her. It’s all she can do to learn the departments within the vast store, all the while encouraged to remember “Your smile is the AllMART welcome mat.”

 

Although published as a teen novel, this dystopian satire features the kind sophisticated ideas and sharp prose found in adult science fiction classics. Savvy readers will notice references to Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, which influenced this cautionary tale of a future that leaves superstores at the center of everyone’s existence. Equally funny and chilling, MARTians is a novel to share.
 


 
 

101 Easy Asian Recipes

posted by: November 27, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for 101 Easy Asian RecipesAs a serious home cook who loves to read cookbooks, I was excited to get my hands on 101 Easy Asian Recipes, by Peter Meehan and the editors of Lucky Peach. I’m a longtime fan of Lucky Peach magazine, a quarterly journal that focuses on food writing of all kinds. Their first cookbook is very approachable. It features simple, clear instructions, plenty of procedural drawings (like how to properly fill and seal a dumpling) and glossy color photographs of finished dishes. Meehan admits that “Asian” is a wide catch-all term — for example, there are no Indian recipes in the book — and they’re not necessarily aiming for authenticity. A recipe for “mall chicken” is a nod to the sauce-doused chicken chunks sampled on toothpicks at nearly every food court you’ve ever visited. This version is baked rather than fried, but is no less craveable.

 

A trip to an Asian supermarket to stock your pantry is a must as you’ll need things you probably won’t find at your local supermarket. Not only does the book provide a frequently used ingredient list, but there are photographic spreads of the actual items. This helps remove any possible confusion, as many of the ingredients may be unfamiliar. These include things like black vinegar, fish sauce, sesame oil, sambal oelek, dashi and white pepper. Recipes call for all types of noodles, from ramen and udon to gluten-free Korean glass noodles (made from sweet potato starch) and rice sticks.

 

Meehan has a great sense of humor that shines through in the notes, the recipes are easy to follow and the results are impressive. I’ve made several dishes with great success in the last couple of weeks, including a smashed cucumber salad with chili, cilantro and peanuts; braised baby bok choy with oyster sauce and crispy garlic; and homemade “dollar dumplings” with dipping sauce. Borrow 101 Easy Asian Recipes now and you’ll likely buy your own copy later.


 
 

Cat Lovers Unite!

posted by: September 29, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for How to Catch a MouseCover art for Miss Hazeltine’s Home for Shy and Fearful CatsCover art for Here Comes the Tooth Fairy Cat

It’s a fact that librarians are partial to cats, but so are picture book authors. There is no shortage of felines on the pages of children’s literature, including this trio of recently published titles. In How to Catch a Mouse, author-illustrator Philippa Leathers introduces an adorable green-eyed marmalade tabby named Clemmie. Although readers find out about Clemmie’s superb mousing skills on the first page, we quickly realize that she may be bragging a bit too much. Has she ever seen a mouse? What about the little gray master of disguise who has been walking around the house, almost in plain sight? This gentle story, humorously illustrated in pencil and watercolor, is perfect for young preschoolers.

 

Owners of timid felines come in droves to the newly established Miss Hazeltine’s Home for Shy and Fearful Cats, also the title of this charming picture book by Alicia Potter. Their cats are failing at all things cats are known for, including pouncing, purring and chasing birds. Patient Miss Hazeltine runs her nervous charges through a daily roster of classes such as Climbing Up, Meeting New Friends and How Not to Fear the Broom. She lavishes special attention on the most bashful little kitty, Crumb. But what happens when Miss Hazeltine goes out to fetch some water and needs rescuing herself? Birgitta Sif’s pencil illustrations and muted palette perfectly capture the essence of such a fanciful boarding school in the woods, run by a sweet, calm and lithe young woman who loves her work. Sif is a master at depicting the many aspects of feline nature, with distinctly different kitties of all shapes and sizes napping, licking, hiding, lapping, perching and hanging on every page.

 

Poor Cat. He’s lost a tooth, but he was asleep when the Tooth Fairy came and he really wanted to meet her. But when he tries to trick her by leaving the tooth of a comb, she turns the tables and insists he must help her out by picking up the teeth of various animals who have lost them. Although he’s excited to be the Tooth Fairy’s apprentice, Cat is none too thrilled to wear a tutu and wings, let alone to share duties with Mouse! Deborah Underwood’s Here Comes the Tooth Fairy Cat is a funny take on this childhood legend, complete with a few surprises along the way. Underwood, who previously featured Cat in two holiday offerings, Here Comes the Easter Cat and Here Comes Santa Cat, uses the technique of an off-page narrator who speaks directly to Cat, questioning him and offering advice. Cat himself communicates only through broad facial expressions and signs he holds. Claudia Rueda’s comical yet warm color pencil and ink drawings are integral to the story, which like its predecessors, would make an excellent classroom read aloud for the kindergarten set.


 
 

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Paula G.