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Bloggers

 

Between the Covers with Elaine Eff

Cover art for The Painted Screens of BaltimoreMaryland folklorist Elaine Eff is a champion of local culture and traditions. In her new book, she sets her sights on a much-loved Baltimore icon: the painted window screen and the artists who created them. Eff will discuss her latest work, The Painted Screens of Baltimore: an Urban Folk Art Revealed, on Tuesday, July 1 at 7:00 p.m. at the North Point Branch. The program, which is part of the branch’s “Dundalk Dialogs” local author speaker series, will include a book talk and signing. Eff recently answered questions for Between the Covers about her new book.

 

Between the Covers: How did you become interested in the history of Baltimore’s painted screens?
Elaine Eff: Serendipity. Two coincidences that changed the course of my life: As a Baltimore girl, I was expected to be an authority on our local folk art – which I was not. In fact, I knew nothing on the subject. When I arrived at graduate school, I found a 19thcentury – not Baltimore, but New York State – painted screen in our museum’s collection, and that started my journey. I needed to learn what history, if any, the two might share.

 

BTC: Can you share how you conducted your research for this project?
EF: Face-to-face, person-by-person. Visiting artists, walking the streets of East Baltimore, talking to strangers, traveling to libraries, museums and archives nationwide, international research and casting the net wider and deeper as the subject became richer and more fascinating.

 

BTC: What do you want readers, who may not have any knowledge of this Baltimore tradition, to take away from your book?
EF: Painted screens are a response to a community’s need for privacy. Row houses demand them, and they had the extra bonus of being downright beautiful. “You see out. No one sees in,” and “They used to be everywhere” is what you hear all the time. The book is as much about Baltimore and neighborhood building. It has something for everyone and can be appreciated on many levels: as a whole, in small bites or tastes here and there. Appreciate what an incredible city of resourceful people can make happen.

 

BTC: Among the painters you researched were there any who were as colorful as the art they created?
EF: Every single one. That is why I first made the film The Screen Painters.  Every painter is a movie in him or herself. They needed to tell their own story and did. They are an incredible group of creative individuals who changed the face of a city. Not bad for a bunch of local untrained artists! The book gives you a glimpse into that wonderful era when the sidewalks told a very different – an incredibly colorful —story, in many ways.

 

BTC: What were some of the favorite images seen around town?
EF: The Red Bungalow was it. Everyone wanted to have the red cottage with a winding path, a pond and swans. Ninety percent of the windows had that scene as interpreted by hundreds of different hands. Today things are very different — strangely, now we see a lot of local landmarks, like the [Patterson Park] Pagoda. One house in Highlandtown even has Formstone painted on the window screen! Big difference is it used to be EVERY window and door — front and back. Now we see the front window and little more. Times and tastes have changed. And that is wonderful.

 

Readers who would like to learn more can also visit The Painted Screen Society of Baltimore website.
 

Cynthia

 
 

Between the Covers with Deborah Rudacille

Cover art for Roots of SteelDeborah RudacilleFor local writer Deborah Rudacille, writing her latest book was a personal odyssey. The daughter of a Bethlehem steelworker knows the heart and soul of the Dundalk community she called home for many years. It's fitting that Rudacille will kick off  the North Point Branch’s “Dundalk Dialogs,” the new adult speaker series that takes place this summer. Rudacille will discuss her latest book, Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town that chronicles the rise and fall of the Sparrows Point steel mill and the neighborhoods in its wake. The program, which includes a book talk and signing, will be held Tuesday, June 3 at 7 p.m. Rudacille recently answered questions for Between the Covers about the genesis for her story and her personal connection to Dundalk.

 

Between the Covers: Your book, Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town, conveys a powerful message about what happens when the American dream fails right in our own backyards. What drove you to tell this story of the former Bethlehem Steel plant and the local community it shaped?
 

Deborah Rudacille: I grew up in Eastfield, and my family, like many of our neighbors, owed their homes and their livelihoods to Bethlehem Steel. When my parents bought their house on Harold Road my dad worked in the tandem mill at Sparrows Point and my mother worked as a secretary for United Steelworkers Local 2610. Most of the men in my family worked at Sparrows Point. So the rise and fall of the American steel industry wasn’t just theory for me — it’s the story of my own family and community.

 

BTC: You present an objective look at an industry in decline. Did the fact that the story was so close to home make it difficult to write at times?
 

DR: Yes. The reporting was easy and fun because I got to hang out with people who were much like the folks I had known growing up and to listen to their stories. But the writing was more challenging because I had to figure out a way to weave together their stories with those of workers who had very different experiences in a way that didn’t skirt the less savory aspects of the narrative — the systemic racism at the Point, for one — and situate them in the broader history of the American steel industry.

 

BTC: You use personal narrative along with workers’ interviews. Can you talk a little bit about how you conducted your research for this project? Were people open to talking about their experiences?
 

DR: Absolutely! Sparrows Point was more than just a job for most of these folks so they loved reminiscing about their experiences there. I started with family members and then worked outward, attending monthly retiree meetings at the union hall and luncheons at various senior centers and churches around town. I like to say that you can’t throw a stone in Baltimore without hitting someone with a Sparrows Point connection, which made it very easy to find folks to tell their stories — not just workers themselves but also family members, and of course people who had been raised in the company town. I also did quite a bit of archival research at the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society, Baltimore County Historical Library, Museum of Industry and other archives.

 

BTC: There are so many threads running through your book — the danger of the mill work itself, the labor unions, racial tensions, safety and environmental issues, the “company town”  concept  to name a few. How did you go about framing your narrative?
 

DR: Well, as I said, that was the greatest challenge in writing the book. There were all these disparate threads and themes, and I knew that I had to include all of them to provide an honest and objective look at life on the Point. Ultimately, I decided to tell the story chronologically but focus each chapter on a different issue using the voices of my sources to carry the narrative forward. Once I settled on that structure, the writing of the book became much easier.

 

BTC: Roots of Steel, published in 2010, was your third book. Your previous books were science-focused. Can you tell us what is next for you as a writer? What else are you doing professionally?
 

DR: I’ve been working as professor of the practice at UMBC for the past couple of years, teaching journalism and science writing. I’ve also done some preliminary reporting for my next project, a kind of Catholic “Roots of Steel” which tells the story of the post-Vatican II church from the perspective of lay Catholics. I’ll be talking with people who have left the church as well as people who remain about their feelings on the sex abuse scandal, the status and role of women in the church and the struggle of LGBT Catholics and divorced and remarried Catholics to remain part of an institution that (officially at least) does not consider them worthy to receive the sacraments. As with Roots of Steel, it will tell a big story through the lens of individual experience.

Cynthia

 
 

In Memory of Maya Angelou

Today, the world lost Maya Angelou. Yet we will never lose the irreplaceable voice she used to shape our world to make it a more compassionate and stronger place.

 

She is most widely known for her first memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in which she reveals the hardships she endured being both an African-American and a girl in the Jim Crow South. In her memoirs, she expresses such complicated themes as race, identity and womanhood in an honest style that illuminates the human condition. In her last book, Mom & Me & Mom, Angelou investigated the loving yet complex relationship she had with her robust mother, an exceptional person in her own right.

 

Along with telling her own story, Angelou used her unique voice in other transformative ways. She was a poet. Her stimulating poetry is gathered in The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. She was a singer, a dancer, an educator and her voice continues to reach far beyond the literary realm. Angelou was a vigorous civil rights advocate, working alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Multiple presidents honored her linguistic power by having her speak as the heart of the nation. In her words and throughout her life, Angelou proved "one isn't necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can't be kind, true, merciful, generous or honest." She embodied these virtues and instilled them in others, to the benefit of us all.

Sarah Jane

 
 

2014 Pulitzer Prizes Announced

Cover art for The GoldfinchThe winners of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize were announced this afternoon. In addition to the awards for journalism, prizes are also given in the area of Letters, Drama, and Music. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch took this year’s prize for Fiction. The judges said that The Goldfinch is "a beautifully written coming-of-age novel with exquisitely drawn characters that follows a grieving boy’s entanglement with a small famous painting that has eluded destruction, a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart." A favorite in the category, The Goldfinch was featured on many lists of the best books of 2013 and has been very popular with BCPL readers.

 

Other winners include Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall for Biography, 3 Sections by Vijay Seshadri for Poetry, Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin for General Nonfiction, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 by Alan Taylor for History and The Flick by Annie Baker for Drama.

 

For a list of all the winners, click here.
 

Beth

 
 

A Second Act

A Second Act

posted by:
April 10, 2014 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Widow's Guide to Sex and DatingWriter and reality TV star Carole Radziwill’s debut novel, The Widow’s Guide to Sex and Dating, is a smart, funny story about a woman dealing with grief and finding herself. When her husband, Charlie, is killed by a falling statue, 34-year-old Claire Byrne’s world stops. She is devastated. Claire, who gave up her career when she married her much older husband, finds herself starting over in every facet of her life. Over the next year, she embarks on a journey to find herself, seeking help from therapists, a psychic, a “botanomanist” and a griot. She even begins dating again and tries to find love. Claire eventually understands that losing Charlie has also given her a chance to change her life and pursue her passions. This quick, fun read will appeal to readers who enjoy novels by Madeleine Wickham, Gigi Levangie Grazer and Helen Fielding.

 

The Widow’s Guide to Sex and Dating isn’t the only thing that Radziwill is getting attention for right now. Her writing career recently became the center of a conflict on Bravo’s The Real Housewives of New York City. Radziwill was discussing writing with her co-star Aviva Drescher, who was writing her first book, Leggy Blonde: A Memoir. Drescher insinuated that Radziwill used a ghostwriter for her bestselling 2005 memoir What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship and Love. Radziwill immediately fired back, denying the accusation and defending her career as a writer. Their feud has become one of the biggest on the show this season, with Bravo dubbing it "#BookGate."

Beth

 
 

Following the Dream

The Distance Between UsAn inspiring coming-of-age story about the pursuit of a better life in the United States is the 2014 One Maryland One Book selection. The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande describes her perilous journey of illegally emigrating from one of the poorest states in Mexico to a Los Angeles Latino neighborhood. Read the entire Between the Covers blog review here.

 

Upon learning of her selection, the Mexican-born author and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist said, “I'm humbled that my immigrant story was chosen to be the springboard for lively conversations on what the American Dream means today.”  The Los Angeles Times called her book “the Angela’s Ashes of the modern Mexican immigrant experience.”

 

Now in its seventh year, the Maryland Humanities Council program brings people from diverse communities 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, King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village by Peggielene Bartels, attracted thousands of readers to Maryland’s statewide book club.  The 2014 theme is “the American Dream.”

Cynthia

 
 

Culture Clash

Culture Clash

posted by:
March 26, 2014 - 8:00am

The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America“Give me your tired, your poor…” beckons the Statue of Liberty, its words a siren call to immigrants with an implied promise of the American Dream. The idea is that, in the United States, anyone can succeed through hard work regardless of the circumstances of their birth and background. But is the deck stacked? Amy Chua and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, analyze this notion in their new book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.

 

Chua and Rubenfeld are not looking at what makes individuals succeed but rather the overall success of cultural groups defined by religion, ethnicity or country of origin. Chua is no stranger to evaluating success; her previous book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, examines the child-rearing customs of Asian immigrants, which are at great odds with western notions of parenting but often result in astoundingly high-achieving children. In The Triple Package, the authors review at least eight distinct and seemingly disparate groups that have attained great and disproportionate financial success. Successful groups studied include Mormons, Nigerians, Persians and Cubans. The three traits shared by all the groups are a collective belief in their own group superiority, a contradictory feeling of insecurity resulting in the need to prove oneself and a well-regulated impulse control. Group members influenced by this trait trifecta are well equipped to run – and win – in the rat race.

 

Chua’s Tiger Mother attracted critics appalled by Chua’s mothering techniques, and The Triple Package is drawing controversy for what some readers see as the espousal of alarmingly elitist social theory. Chua and Rubenfeld do acknowledge a darker side to the package that can feature anxiety, depression and bigotry. The Triple Package provides an alternative slant on achievement in America.

Lori

 
 

Leo Bretholz, 1921-2014

Leo Bretholz, 1921-2014

posted by:
March 10, 2014 - 2:32pm

Cover art for Leap into DarknessHolocaust survivor and author Leo Bretholz passed away Saturday at his home in Pikesville at the age of 93. Bretholz was imprisoned numerous times as he sought to escape Nazi-occupied Europe for seven years. Bretholz escaped seven times during his harrowing ordeal, including a 1942 jump from a train headed for Auschwitz.

 

Bretholz immigrated to the United States in 1947, eventually settling in Baltimore. Upon receipt of the death notifications of his mother and sisters in 1962, Bretholz began publicly sharing his story. In 1998, his gripping memoir of his experiences during this time, Leap into Darkness, was published and remains a riveting documentary of survival. Until his death, Bretholz remained dedicated to ensuring that new generations of school children were aware of his story and the history of the Holocaust and was tireless in his work as an advocate.

Maureen

 
 

Keys to the Castle

Outrageous  Fortune by Anthony RussellA dizzying amount of wealth permeates the stone fortifications in Anthony Russell’s entertaining new memoir, Outrageous Fortune: Growing Up at Leeds Castle. What seems most important is what the wealth symbolizes and how it shapes the lives of those it cradles. Yes, the tweedy set flaunts its well-placed connections. There are pheasant-shoots, duck launches and tea-sipping beneath museum-bound tapestries. Not surprisingly, Russell admits there are also consequences to being reared in a "gilded bubble,” where everything material is handed to you. Russell aims to satisfy our curiosity.

 

For those not familiar with medieval fortresses, Leeds Castle is about as splendid as they come. Located in Kent, England, the former Norman stronghold with ties to six queens of England is among the most visited historic buildings in Britain. Its 900-year history is the stuff of fairy tales. Readers will appreciate the complement of black and white photographs.

 

The writer-musician Russell, who grew up in this milieu, was exposed to the stuff of kings at an early age thanks to his maternal grandmother and chatelaine, the bold, indomitable Lady Baillie. "Granny B" purchased Leeds Castle in 1926 for the American sum of $874,000. It is here that Russell spent his childhood in the 1950s, absorbing "the castle way." This included eccentric "ceremonies" like fussing over baby ducks and enduring family gatherings where no one paid him much mind. With such a privileged start, gearing up for adulthood beyond the castle gate would have its challenges.

 

Writing with wry humor, Russell alternates between being sardonic and wistful. He points out unapologetically some of the silliness while poignantly recalling the shear splendor of it all and gratitude for being a part of it. We get to know some of the uniquely British personalities (with names like Morg, Guysy-Wee and Mr. Elves) who help add the color that make this frank, behind-the-scenes look a delightful jaunt, just in time for the return of another extravagant household in Downton Abbey.

Cynthia

 
 

An Interview with Baltimore's Native Son

Cover art for Tales from the Holy LandBaltimore author Rafael Alvarez discusses his new book, Tales from the Holy Land, on Thursday, Jan. 16 at 7 p.m. at the North Point Branch. The former reporter for The Baltimore Sun and writer for The Wire recently answered questions for Between the Covers about his latest collection of short stories on the magic of old Baltimore.

 

Q. Your new collection of short stories, Tales from the Holy Land, comes out this month. If you had to choose one story that epitomizes the gritty resolve of your hometown, what would it be?

A. "Junie Bug," in which a man spends his life digging in Leakin Park for the body of his father; and "The Sacred Heart of Ruthie," in which an orphan raised by the Oblate Sisters of Providence grows up to be a heart surgeon.

 

Q. This is your third collection of short fiction. What makes you favor short stories as your literary medium? How did this latest book come about?

A. I write fiction every day – about a half hour to an hour a day – in between the journalism and screenwriting I have to do to make a living. When I have enough for a new book I string them together and because I always use the same cast of "Holy Land" characters – Basilio, Grandpop, Nieves, Orlo and Leini, Miss Bonnie – it reads more like a novelized "mural" than stand alone short stories. [As a] side note, the 2013 Nobel Prize winner, Alice Munro, works exclusively in the short story genre.

 

Q. As a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun and former writer for the HBO cop drama, The Wire, you have witnessed a lot of Baltimore's heartbreak. How do you keep cynicism from overtaking your writing?

A. There are two, maybe three Baltimores within the city. I have lived in Baltimore for all of my 55 years – was educated here, raised my children here – and have never been the victim of a crime. I am thankful for that, but I'm not ignorant of how fortunate I am to have been born into the 1960s middle-class and not the entrenched underclass. I keep cynicism away from my art and my soul by means of hope, which I incorporate into both, by believing that the more you give away the more hopeful you become.

 

Q. Talk a little bit about your family background and its influence on your fiction writing.

A. The best answer to this question is found in the story The Fountain of Highlandtown, which won the 1994 Baltimore City Artscape fiction award and is included in Tales from the Holy Land.  The story was my first real success in the world of fiction and, in many ways, is the provenance for all of the stories to come.

Cynthia