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Thinking Out Loud

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan DaumMeghan Daum's new essay collection The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion starts off with an emotional stab. In her opening essay, Daum speaks about her complicated relationship with her mother and her ho-hum reaction to her death. "I was as relieved as I planned to be," she says, when her mother finally stops breathing. It’s this honesty that you should expect from Daum as she explores a hodgepodge of subjects from her flawed family to her obsession with Joni Mitchell. The L.A. Times columnist and author of three previous books, ruminates on what makes her tick, even when it is far from flattering.

 

Daum isn't afraid to say what many might feel but would never utter aloud. Her 10 essays range from light and insignificant to a catharsis for the 40-something as she traverses life's weightier decisions. She's at her best early on with her character-driven portrait of her mother whose behavior her daughter could not abide.

 

Intelligent and candid, Daum exudes an unapologetic tone as she grapples with creeping midlife and what to make of it. There are moments of eloquent internal clarity that reach across the page. Her thought-provoking essay "Difference Maker," about her experience mentoring in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program, delves into the underbelly of foster care. It's an observant gem that does not pretend to have the answers. That's what rises to the top of Daum’s latest effort. For all the self-analysis and "unspeakable thoughts many of us harbor," life is still often about the intangibles.

Cynthia

 
 

Brother Against Brother

Cover art for The Man Who Would Not Be WashingtonCover art for Marching HomeOne of the great paradoxes of history is Robert E. Lee’s decision to fight for the Confederacy rather than defend the Union. Jonathan Horn explores the great battle Lee fought within himself in The Man Who Would Not Be Washington.

 

Robert E. Lee was the son of a renowned Revolutionary General, the son-in-law of Washington’s adopted child and the keeper of the flame of Washington’s legacy. He graduated second in his class at West Point, fought for his country during the Mexican-American War, and was considered the natural choice to command the Union Army. Despite a lifetime defending the Constitution against all enemies, he could not bear arms against his neighbors. Horn’s extensive research follows Lee through his personal and professional life, illuminating the deep ties of family, affection and history that bound the Washington and Lee families. It is this one, fateful decision that has shaped our perception of Washington and created the American story.

 

Our nation’s story is not simply about the generals, but also the private soldiers. In Marching Home: The Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, Brian Jordan shatters the legend of the constantly faithful, overly sentimental soldier who attends reunions and speaks fondly of brothers-in-arms. Rather, the soldiers were tormented by wounds and memories. A new fight began after the war — the fight for dignity, fair compensation and recognition of their accomplishments. Determined to put the war behind them, civilians were unprepared for the return of shell-shocked veterans and unwilling to deal with their needs. Using pension records, diaries, letters and regimental histories, Brian Matthew Jordan has brought into stark relief the needs of veterans and the vast gulf between the home front and the battlefront.

 

Two great reads for Civil War devotees — from one Civil War nut to another!

Leanne

 
 

Confronting Your Bullies

Cover art for Whipping Boy"Eat it, Nosey," he said again. "Only this time make sure you chew."

 

Allen Kurzweil is 10 years old, and his roommate at an elite Swiss boarding school is forcing him to eat bread soaked in hot sauce until tears are streaming down his face and then some. This incident, along with several others at the hand of Cesar Augustus Viana, causes Allen to leave the boarding school that summer after his first year. While the view of the Alps may be far behind him, the memory of Cesar, his tormentor, never dies.

 

Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully documents the adult Kurzweil’s journey to track down Cesar and confront him at last. His quest takes him back to Switzerland to look for the ghost of his past in old dormitories, to an ill-fated beauty school in Manila, through New York City law firms and to a Californian federal prison. As he unearths more of Cesar’s movements and where he might be now, Kurzweil finds himself under the weight of tons of documents convicting Cesar in a bizarre international, multi-million dollar bank fraud case.

 

Will Allen follow through on his promise to punch Cesar right in the nose if and when at last they meet? Will all of his meticulous research and a lifetime of reliving the horrors at the hands of Cesar be in vain? More importantly, has Allen’s obsession with bringing Cesar to justice and righting past wrongs turned him into what he has feared: Has he become the bully?

 

Kurzweil’s obsession for all things related to Cesar’s life make this a fascinating read. Biography and memoir fans looking for something a little unconventional will be happy with the level of detail and the thoroughness of the research.

 

Jessica

 
 

Making a Difference

The Work: My Search for a Life That Matters by Wes MooreAuthor Wes Moore, not yet 40, is already quite accomplished. A graduate of Johns Hopkins and a Rhodes Scholar, an army officer with combat tours in Afghanistan, a Wall Street banker, a White House fellow and author of a bestselling memoir, Moore surely exceeds any standard measure of success. Moore’s newest book, The Work: My Search for a Life That Matters, reflects upon his varied experiences which have impressed upon him the importance of work which one believes to be meaningful.

 

Baltimore readers may already be familiar with his first book The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, which Moore was motivated to write after reading a newspaper article about a young Baltimore man who grew up a few blocks from Moore’s childhood home, imprisoned for his part in the shooting death of a security officer. That man’s name, too, is Wes Moore, and author Moore struggled to understand the difference in the life journeys of the two men. In The Work, Moore acknowledges his lifelong fascination with “fate and meaning…success and failure.” He goes on to highlight what he views as lessons learned from his myriad workplaces and shares stories about people who’ve inspired him and are also practitioners of work, paid or otherwise, aimed at serving others.

 

John Galina and Dale Beatty are the founders of Purple Heart Homes, which aims to provide disabled veterans with affordable and accessible housing. Liberty Elementary School in Baltimore City, where nearly all the students live below the poverty line, is led by Principal Joe Manko who cut the administrative budget in favor of bringing in technology and resources directly benefiting his classrooms. The Aley siblings formed American MoJo, a for-profit manufacturing company meant to employ struggling single moms. Moore also finds role models in every day folks who may not be as visible but exemplify passion and service, such as his grandfather or a NYC office cleaner. The Work includes an appendix of questions which, though introspective, could be used for triggering a book club discussion.

Lori

 
 

Ode to Troy McClure, Bill Clinton, Frankenstein and the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer

Cover art for You Might Remember Me

For eight seasons on Saturday Night Live, Phil Hartman’s comedic genius delighted audiences. Known as “The Glue” among his castmates, Hartman’s many impersonations and broad characters revitalized the show after one of its darkest periods. Beyond SNL, Hartman was a beloved voice on The Simpsons as well as the bombastic Bill McNeal on the critically lauded show NewsRadio. Poised to make a superstar breakout in several summer films of 1998, life was great for the comedian.

 

But in the early morning hours of May 28, 1998, police released the shocking news that Phil Hartman had been killed by his wife, Brynn, in their home while their children slept. For such a funny man to meet such a tragic end seemed unbelievable as fans, friends and costars tried to make sense of the loss to the comedy world at large. In You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman, biographer Mike Thomas stresses that what a person thinks of when she or he thinks about Phil Hartman isn’t his death, but the life of a performer whose talent gave laughter to so many.

 

Chock-full of interviews with family and famous friends, the book delves into Hartman’s childhood — as one of eight children, he often had to “perform” to be noticed. It also highlights his early career as a successful graphic artist (he designed album covers for bands like Poco and America) to his breakthrough with The Groundlings. From helping Paul Reubens hone the character of Pee-Wee Herman to developing his own popular character Chick Hazard, Phil Hartman seemed an enigma: someone committed to performing without really wanting to stick to it for long. He was someone waiting for the next big thing, but only if the next big thing fit in with the lifestyle he wanted.

 

You Might Remember Me paints a picture of a man searching for an identity: one that he could never quite completely cover with wigs and prosthetic noses. It is a great read for fans of Hartman’s work and for those who enjoy biographies of complicated, delicate genius, both in the moment and ahead of its time.

 

Jessica

 
 

Author Carine McCandless to Speak at Arbutus Branch

Cover art for The Wild TruthIn 1992, 24-year-old Chris McCandless gave away his savings and most of his worldly possessions and embarked on his dream trip, a quest in the Alaskan wilderness. His adventure ended in his tragic death in an abandoned bus just off the Stampede Trail near Denali National Park. Chris’ story was the subject of Jon Krakauer’s bestselling nonfiction book Into the Wild in 1996, and it was later made into a film directed by Sean Penn. Krakauer’s book focused mainly on Chris’ journey and the end of his life, but it left many questions about his past and his motivations unanswered, leading to many widely held misconceptions about Chris.

 

Because of the popularity of Into the Wild, people think that they know Chris’ story, but there’s much more than meets the eye. While Krakauer was researching his book, Chris’ sister Carine McCandless shared more about her family and Chris’ childhood with him, even allowing Krakauer to read some of her brother’s letters relating his feelings about unpleasant details of life in the McCandless home. To protect her parents and half siblings, Carine asked Krakauer not to include the letters in his book. Now, Carine McCandless is revealing those details in The Wild Truth, a book she hopes will allow readers to view her brother’s life and actions through a more accurate lens.

 

Above all things, Chris McCandless valued truth, and Carine’s raw and honest account of their family life builds a much clearer picture of what drove Chris to take his journey. This unforgettable story is my favorite new nonfiction book this fall. The Wild Truth is not just for fans of Into the Wild. It’s also a must-read for readers who are drawn to family memoirs.

 

We are delighted that Carine McCandless will speak about her book and her brother’s legacy at the Arbutus Branch on Saturday, December 6 at 2 p.m. Readers can hear directly from Carine and have the opportunity to ask her questions about The Wild Truth. Find out more information about this event.

Beth

 
 

The Worst Fear

Cover art for The FallCover art for On ImmunityAsk parents to share their deepest fear and, inevitably, it involves something tragic happening to their child. In Diogo Mainardi’s The Fall: A Father’s Memoir in 424 Steps, Mainardi writes about the intersection of grandeur and error which led to his son’s disabling cerebral palsy. On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss examines modern medicine’s sometimes controversial practice of vaccination.

 

424. That’s the number of footsteps taken by Tito Mainardi as he and his father walk to Venice Hospital where he was born, and where physician error resulted in his brain injury. It’s also the number of brief passages that make up this small memoir in which Mainardi finds connections between art, architecture, music and history, and relates them back to Tito and his illness. Profoundly moving and structured by concentric links, The Fall demonstrates that tragedy and beauty may not be such a dichotomy after all.

 

Red-faced and screaming or silently stoic: either way, it can be tough as a parent to put a child through the often painful series of recommended inoculations. Even more difficult would be wondering if your child’s autism was triggered by a vaccine or passing on those shots only to see a child hospitalized with whooping cough. Biss looks at the varied reasons behind a parent’s decision to decline immunizations, which include African and Middle Eastern Muslim fears of a western plot to harm their children via the polio vaccine to American concerns about greedy pharmaceutical companies or political agendas pushing unnecessary and invasive medicine — all of which compromise the “herd immunity” protecting communities from disease outbreak. On Immunity provides a thoughtful view on the impact of vaccines on contemporary public health.

Lori

 
 

Leslie Knope Approved This Message

Cover art for Yes Please by Amy PoehlerAmy Poehler wants you to know that writing a book is very, very hard to do. She handles the pressure well in her memoir, Yes Please.

 

Delving into her deep-rooted love for all things comedy, Poehler shares hilarious stories from her performing past. She shares how, as a 10-year-old playing the role of Dorothy in a school production of The Wizard Of Oz, she was able to get her first audience to laugh and how she has been chasing that feeling ever since. From her college years through her work with improv troupe (and later Comedy Central show) The Upright Citizens Brigade, Poehler stresses the value of hard work as the source of her success. Fans of her work on Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation will not be disappointed either — several chapters share inside jokes, back stories and funny mishaps on the sets of both beloved shows.

 

Her vast work experience isn’t the only engaging part of this memoir: Poehler also gets personal. Her reflections on motherhood and raising her two boys, Archie and Abel, demonstrate her creativity in parenting. She doesn’t directly address her divorce with comedian Will Arnett, but does offer a hilarious chapter on some divorce books she would like to someday write, such as “I Want a Divorce! See You Tomorrow!” and “The Holidays Are Ruined!” There are lots of stories about her friendships with recognizable names, like Tina Fey and Louis C.K. Best friend Seth Meyers also contributes a short chapter.  

 

Inter-chapters feature some interesting “advice,” and the book shows off some great keepsakes: a letter from Hillary Clinton welcoming Archie into the world, a signed photo of The Wire’s Michael K. Williams and many photographs and relics from her childhood, including poems she wrote when she was little.

 

This memoir is perfect for any fan of Amy Poehler, her work or comedy in general. Her wealth of experience in a variety of venues and acts will inspire and educate those looking to “break into the biz,” and her ideas about everything from performing sketch comedy nine-months pregnant to how our cell phones will eventually kill us will amuse and entertain any reader. After reading, pick up some of her best work, like Parks and Recreation or Saturday Night Live: The Best of Amy Poehler on DVD.
 

Jessica

 
 

Past into Present

Past into Present

posted by:
October 29, 2014 - 7:00am

Book cover of Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. BlowBook cover of the Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs.Two little boys growing up in America; one an urban Jersey boy, the other raised in the small towns of the deep South. Both are African-American, poor, with strong, determined mothers and absentee fathers, each a young witness to violence. Both are identified as highly intelligent and both went to college and graduated. One became a reporter and appears on network television news shows; the other is dead, murdered. Journalist Charles Blow tells his own story in Fire Shut Up in My Bones: A Memoir while Jeff Hobbs memorializes the life of his Yale roommate in the bestselling The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League.

 

Charles Blow looks to be sitting in the catbird seat. Op-ed columnist for The New York Times and a commentator on CNN, he is a man who projects confidence and success. His memoir, however, reveals a rural Louisiana childhood of poverty where he saw conflict settled with weapons and one of the greatest insults a boy could endure was to be a called a “punk,” meaning homosexual. Blow was twice the victim of sexual abuse by older male relatives, leaving him wondering what it was about himself that attracted predators. Fire Shut Up In My Bones is Blow’s sensitive and introspective reflection on how his past created his present.

 

Young Robert Peace idolized his father, a man who seemed to know everyone in Newark’s rough suburbs. Convicted of killing two women, Peace’s father was incarcerated when Peace was in first grade. Rob’s mother Jackie worked in institutional kitchens to afford a private education for her son, determined that Rob would escape the ghetto. Indeed he did, landing a fully funded spot at Yale thanks to his prodigious intellect, focused hard work and leadership qualities. The quick and sad version of Peace’s story is after college, he gradually drifted back to his old neighborhood and slid into the criminal activity leading to his murder. Hobbs chooses to honor his friend fairly by writing The Short and Tragic Life which presents Peace as a complex man who struggled under the weight of opposing expectations and experiences.

Lori

 
 

Ashes to Ashes

Ashes to Ashes

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

Book cover of Smoke Gets in Your EyesCaitlin Doughty grew up in Hawai’i, and early on became “functionally morbid” with death. As a girl, she witnessed a shocking accident at a shopping mall, which cemented her desire to better understand the afterlife, which she parlayed into her college study of medieval death rituals. In her book debut Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, Doughty brings this difficult but universal subject to light. Despite the dark and sometimes gory content, she conversationally illuminates her year at Westwind Cremation and Burial in Oakland, California, and what she has accomplished since. If you never before knew the methods (and secrets) of “dignified” body disposal, you will after reading this exceptional book.

 

Doughty sprinkles her text with plenty of food for thought, whether it be historical and cultural tidbits about death, body disposal and mourning in cultures throughout time and worldwide, or when she gives her strong opinions about what we in America are doing right and wrong when it comes to handling our mortality. She daydreamed that one day she would open a funeral practice called “La Belle Mort,” which would take the unnatural aspects out of the process, but instead make for an open discussion about death and the hereafter. A chapter focusing on women’s roles in mortality culture includes a passage reminding the reader that “every time a woman gives birth, she is creating not only a life, but also a death.”

 

The author discusses corpses of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the stillborn to the elderly, the suicides and the drug overdoses, those who died surrounded by loved ones and those who died alone. Host of her own YouTube series, Ask a Mortician, Doughty also discusses how unfortunate it is that so few people know the law with regard to their loved ones’ corpses, nor do they have a plan of action. A timeless memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is both eye-opening and could start important topical discussions that too few of us are having.

Todd