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Life Lessons Du Jour

Cover art for Over EasyMimi Pond is an artist and illustrator, whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Seventeen and on the animated series, The Simpsons. In her new graphic novel biography, Over Easy, Pond revisits a unique time and place: the late 1970s in Northern California. During this time of transition, the beat and hippie cultures were fighting a rear-guard action to stay culturally relevant; punk was new on the scene and grabbing everyone by the throat, lyrically and sometimes literally; and disco was just starting to die a slow overly choreographed and elaborately coiffed death. Pond abruptly finds herself tossed out of art school in her final year when her financial aid runs dry. Sitting in the Imperial Café, a popular local diner and one of her favorite places to sketch, she takes a chance and asks the diner’s manager and comical free-spirit, Lazlo, for a job. He hands her an application and tells her to only write one thing: the funniest joke she can think of. Pond lands the gig and finds herself in the exalted position of dishwasher. The work is hard, long, and brutal, but it clearly gives Pond the perfect vantage point to observe the hothouse environment of the diner. From the sexual roulette and rabid drug use that seems to be her co-workers' chief occupations to the dreams and ambitions that each holds dear, Pond sees all. Seizing an unexpected opportunity, Pond graduates to waitress and takes the chance to reinvent herself personally, and finally finds acceptance as a member of the diner’s family.

 

Pond’s illustrations are cool and clear, the slight cartoonish-ness of them playing well against the serious themes. The monochromatic colors speak to the nature of the transitions happening in this period with the promise of color reserved for a world not yet born. The illustrations resemble a series of sketches done mid-shift on the back of napkins and menus, stolen moments of observation while clearing a four top. The unconventional tale moves at a staccato pace like a free-styling beat poet at open mic night. It is a story that stops but doesn’t really end; perhaps a hint of more to come? You will find yourself wondering what will become of this child of hippies on the cusp of the Reagan-era love of materialism and excess. Will she stay true to herself while navigating the changing times? Perhaps it isn’t too much to ask that Pond grace us with further unique volumes of her work and share her incredible talent as a storyteller.

 

For a Mature Audience due to themes of sex and drug use.
 

Brian

 
 

Outshining the Stars

I Don't Know What You Know Me From: Confessions of a Co-StarYou know who Judy Greer is, even if you don’t know who Judy Greer is. You may know her from her role as Cheryl in Archer, or as Kitty Sanchez in Arrested Development, or as the best friend in movies like 13 Going on 30 and 27 Dresses. You may even know her as the mom from the new “Framily Plan” commercials from Sprint. The point is, with dozens of co-starring roles in TV series and major movies, you know who Judy Greer is, even if you can’t pick her out of a lineup. This famous anonymity suits the actress just fine as she makes clear in her hilarious new biography I Don’t Know What You Know Me From: Confessions of a Co-Star.

 

Hailing from outside of Detroit, Ms. Greer has the work ethic of a dray horse and the sense of humor bred from the privations of the rust belt and ungodly cold winters. Her childhood, while not a large chunk of her new memoir, provides some of the funniest fodder. Like her fellow Midwesterner from across the lake, Tim Conway, Ms. Greer is more than willing to embarrass herself and expose her own foibles to make us laugh. The end result is a book that is funny and endearing. You are happy for her success and for her excitement at meeting real celebrities. Whether she is discussing spending her summers in the quaint town of Carey, Ohio, or peeing next to her far more famous co-stars, which occupies a chapter of her book, Greer has an enthusiasm for life and a wide-eyed zeal that will leave you smiling as if you were watching a basket full of puppies frolic.

 

In one of her best quotes, Ms. Greer notes that a family member once told her that “Work begets more work,” and in pursuit of that ideal she has relentlessly pursued roles that weren’t starring roles, but roles that would keep her working. Along the way, several of her characters have become comedy cultural touchstones. If you like Bossypants or Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, you will love I Don’t Know What You Know Me From. While her career so far has been one as a co-star, something she doesn’t mind at all, you finish this book hoping she will get her chance to find that starring role and join the ranks of actresses like Tina Fey, Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett.

Brian

 
 

The Litchfield Ladies’ Book Club

Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Woman's PrisonOrange Is the New Black Season OneOrange Is the New Black is back! The second season of the popular series starring Taylor Schilling, Jason Biggs and Laura Prepon was released a few weeks ago exclusively on Netflix. The first season’s dramatic ending left fans on the edge of their seats, and the second season brings us right back to the drama at the fictional Litchfield Correctional Facility.

 

The show is based on Piper Kerman’s bestselling 2010 memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison. When Kerman was sentenced to 15 months in a minimum security federal prison for a crime that she committed 10 years earlier, she entered a world unlike anything she had ever known. Kerman’s memoir takes readers through her entire sentence as she learns to navigate this world with its unique set of rules and social norms. The book is about more than just Kerman’s experiences, though. The reader gets an up-close view of the American correctional system, and we are introduced to her fellow inmates, whose lives and circumstances are very different from her own. Kerman’s memoir is heartbreaking, uproariously funny and sometimes shocking.

 

Reading is a popular way for the Litchfield inmates to pass the time. A lot of scenes take place in the prison library, and the characters are frequently spotted reading or holding books. The books in the background have taken on a life of their own, becoming a popular topic for fan discussions and blogs. Entertainment Weekly’s Stephan Lee breaks down what the characters are reading in the new season episode by episode. (Contains spoilers.) Popular novels like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Ian McEwan’s Atonement are featured alongside classics like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. If you want to read along with the ladies of Litchfield, this list will help you get started.

Beth

 
 

The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree

Cover art for Good Talk, DadBill and Willie Geist have a great deal in common. They are both TV personalities: Bill on CBS News Sunday Morning and Willie on The Today Show. They both have a deep love of sports. They are both raconteurs with a wickedly insightful sense of humor. As a father and son, they have shared, and sometimes not shared, many of life’s milestones, and in Good Talk, Dad we are lucky they have decided to share those milestones with us.

 

The book is designed to feel like an ongoing conversation between a father and son as well as to serve as an oral history for generations of Geists yet unborn. The extremely well done audiobook is especially a treat as both Bill and Willie do the narration. Each section of the book is divided into a topic like sports, parenting or sex. Each Geist weighs in with his thoughts and their shared experience or recollections on the issue, and they take the opportunity to fill each other in on the parts the other might not have known about. The two points of view are clear and unique. Bill is a Midwestern, who served in Vietnam and spent much of his career in print journalism. Willie grew up in New Jersey and had easy access to New York City; he was accomplished in sports and practically fell into a series of jobs in broadcast journalism. These differences play extremely well off one another like discordant syncopation in a jazz number. The feel is like Bill Bryson meets Sh*t My Dad Says. It is funny, real and heartfelt.

 

Good Talk, Dad, above all else, feels genuine. In your mind’s eye, you can see these two men who clearly love and respect each other hunched over a computer rapidly emailing each other back and forth. They share laughter and feelings in a way that men in our society are not often comfortable doing in person. The resulting image is of a family where laughter is more common than anger, where people like and support each other, and where they are just plain comfortable around each other. It might just leave you a little bit jealous that you have not experienced life as a Geist.

Brian

 
 

A Chicken in the Garden

Mister Owita's Guide to GardeningListen to the Squawking ChickenTwo memoirs hit the library shelves recently. One is tender, the other brash, but each author writes with much love. Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart by Virginia author Carol Wall is a poignant account of her friendship with Giles Owita, a Kenyan immigrant. Celebrity gossip blogger Elaine Lui writes about her Chinese mother in the blunt and brassy Listen to the Squawking Chicken: When a Mother Knows Best, What’s a Daughter to Do?  A Memoir (Sort Of).

 

Carol Wall looks at her Roanoke neighbors’ verdant gardens and lawns and knows her shabby yard needs help. Wall hires a friend’s gardener, Mr. Owita, and hands him a list of her gardening desires which Owita politely ignores. Wall and Owita cross racial and cultural boundaries as their relationship morphs from one of employer and gardener to student and teacher and eventually, dear friends. Wall is frank about her emotional struggles as a breast cancer survivor, and the support provided by Owita as both a gardening mentor and fellow traveler becomes increasingly important to her. Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening is a lovely and spiritual homage to Giles Owita, whose guidance and example allow Wall to see the beauty in life despite its fleeting nature.

 

Elaine Lui opens Listen to the Squawking Chicken with a description of her petite mother as a “China Woman Elvis” dressed in a rhinestone-studded, denim popped-collar pantsuit, massive visor and sunglasses. Ma’s Cantonese nickname is Tsiahng Gai, meaning Squawking Chicken, and when she speaks, her daughter compares her voice to a siren.  Ma is loud, pushy and controlling, and embraces the use of guilt and threats as parenting tools. Lui ‘s recollections often portray her mother as harsh and judgmental, holding cruel court in her mahjong rooms, but a different picture emerges as Lui shares stories of the atrocious deprivation and brutality of Ma’s childhood. Ma’s methods may be unorthodox, but Lui recognizes her mothering is done out of love and the desire to protect her daughter from the horrors which shaped her. Lui talks about her book and posted an absolutely adorable picture of Ma on her website.

Lori

 
 

Discomfort Zone

Cover art for StringerHow does a young mathematician on the cusp of a Yale doctorate end up as a journalist in one of the world's bleakest places? For Anjan Sundaram, it was a desire to experience firsthand the sights, sounds and emotions of a tormented and misunderstood country he only knew from passing news briefs. His story, recounted in his new memoir, Stringer: A Reporter's Journey in the Congo, calls attention to a region of the central African continent often on the world's radar for the wrong reasons.

 

Sundaram times his arrival well.  It’s 2006, and there is cautious interest in the country's historic elections. Settling into the home of a friend's family in the lower class section of Kinshasa, he soon lands a job as a stringer for the Associated Press.  Through his experiences, he conveys the turbulent, repressive history of this beautiful, yet troubled land beset by sexual violence, killings and mutilations.  Despoiled by corrupt companies and governments, its abundance of natural resources has also cost the Congolese dearly. It is a place where death, as a rule, makes news only if it involves villages and armies or the U.N.  Sundaram raises inexplicable contradictions as well, like a boy who dies of typhoid because his family had no money for treatment but whose elaborate, expensive funeral draws hundreds.

 

For a reporter with no previous journalism training, Sundaram tells a good story with his sharp first-hand narrative and careful observations, especially of children. He acknowledges missteps along the way, and his vulnerabilities become part of the journey. The author, who currently lives in Rwanda, turned down a lucrative career at Goldman Sachs to tell us about this downtrodden African nation, long gripped by civil war. For readers interested in world politics and humanitarian crises here is a rare look by someone determined to tell the story.

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

 
 

The Art of the Big Sulk

The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not StayHooman Majd is an Iranian-American, a well-known and respected journalist who is critical of the Iranian government as well as the son of a high-ranking diplomat for the Shah. All of these factors would be good reason for Majd to limit his time in Iran. Majd has travelled in and out of Iran for years, often escorting U.S. journalists. He has published two previous books on the country, which were critical of the Iranian government. Majd grew up in the U.S. and Britain, but like many political refugees, he has always felt the pull of his home country. In his book, The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay, Majd recounts the nearly year-long stay in Tehran that he and his family embark upon.

 

This journey begins when his family moves there during a tumultuous time in Iran – on the cusp of the Arab Spring and the failure of the Green Movement reforms. Majd talks about the big issues while also discussing the minutiae of an American family trying to live in a country devoid of Starbucks and organic food stores. His narrative is often humorous, and it is at its best when discussing the average Iranian people, who have an incredibly self-deprecating view, a voracious love of politics and an admiration for American ideals.

 

Majd looks at Iranian cultural features like “sulking” and exaggeration and shows them in everyday life as well as how they play out in the domestic and international political arenas. What emerges is a portrait of a modern capitalist country that, while still repressive, has a very healthy political dialogue, including reporting on every juicy bit of gossip about leaders like they were the Kardashians. The people desire to stay Islamic but also to become more open and liberal. Majd sees the U.S./Iranian relationship as a version of a Persian “Big Sulk,” with an Iranian government ready to resume ties with the U.S., but only after the U.S. makes a demonstration of apology for past wrongs and expresses a desire for such a relationship. It’s an intriguing possibility, but one that the U.S. would be politically unable to explore. Ultimately, Majd is on a journey to discover the Persian identity, both his own and his homeland’s.

Brian

 
 

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

 
 

Belle of Baltimore

Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson BonaparteBaltimore’s Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson Bonaparte was known as the most beautiful woman in the United States. Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte’s younger brother, was more interested in women than war games. The pair fell madly in love, and in so doing, changed their destinies and affected international diplomacy. Carol Berkin shares the story of this remarkable woman in Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte.

 

Born in Baltimore in 1785, Betsy was the eldest child of William Patterson and Dorcas Spear Patterson. Betsy’s beauty was renowned and coupled with her intelligence, wit and independence, it made her one of the most sought-after women in America. She refused marriage proposals from wealthy, powerful men, writing to her father, "Nature never intended me for obscurity." Her 1803 marriage to Jerome ensured her place in the spotlight and in history. Her father’s opposition to this union paled in comparison to Napoleon’s livid reaction. When the couple traveled from Baltimore to France, Napoleon banned the then-pregnant Betsy from disembarking in any European port. Napoleon also gave Jerome an ultimatum: Stay married to Betsy and get nothing, or marry a woman of Napoleon’s choice and enjoy wealth and power. Jerome ended the marriage in 1805 and was made king of Westphalia.

 

England welcomed the sensational Betsy with open arms, and it was there that she gave birth to her son and only child. She spent the rest of her life traveling between Baltimore and England and grew to admire the refined English society and despise America’s obsession with commerce. Despite her disdain for her country’s moneymaking mania, she fought for and received a pension from Napoleon that she invested, ultimately amassing a great fortune. Using Betsy’s letters, Berkin goes behind the tabloid-esque story and creates a portrait of an independent woman struggling to find her place in a changing world.

 

The Maryland Historical Society’s exhibit "Woman of Two Worlds:" Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for an Imperial Legacy” brings to life the two worlds that Betsy inhabited and showcases her jewels, silver, furniture, paintings and much more, including one of her scandalous gowns.

Maureen