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Outside Looking In

Brain on FireAs Susannah Cahalan waited in the doctor’s office the painting of Miro’s Carota, with its twisted, unnatural grin, seemed to smile down at her. She would revisit the colorful and distorted face over the next several months as she battled a mysterious neurological illness that almost permanently severed her connection with reality. In her candid and gripping new memoir, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, the New York Post reporter reconstructs in a riveting fashion the journey that carried her to the brink of lunacy.

 

For twenty-four-year-old Cahalan the illness crept up innocently enough. She believed her flu symptoms were the result of bedbugs in her Manhattan apartment. Once she began experiencing numbness she sought out a doctor. Soon she was missing deadlines at work, and her increasingly erratic behavior now included paranoia and hallucinations. Cahalan and her family worried she was having a nervous breakdown. It was her first blackout at her boyfriend Stephen’s house that “marked the line between sanity and insanity,” she recalled. Doctors were baffled, and on March 23, 2009 she was admitted to the hospital. Eventually, a prominent neurologist's hunch followed by a brain biopsy confirmed that she suffered from rare autoimmune encephalitis. Recovery would take months. Her zombie-like behavior scared people who wondered what was wrong with her. She described running into an old high school friend as a "soul crushing moment." Her rock remained her family, Stephen and her parents, who never wavered.

 

Cahalan admits writing her story was difficult. With only flashes of memory intact she relied on interviews, medical records, journals, and hospital video footage to complete the picture. Absorbing and fast paced, the book’s short chapters read like a medical mystery that takes an eye-opening look inside the misfiring of the human mind and its ability to repair and emerge from the abyss.

 

Cynthia

 
 

Checking out for Good

Heads in BedsAs a cog in the wheel of an industry that survives on its image, Jacob Tomsky knows a thing or two about hotels. His new book, Heads in Beds, a Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality, takes a sassy, insightful look inside the lodging establishments that employed him for over a decade. Humorously eye-opening and slightly bawdy, Tomsky's take on the hospitality business is everything you ever wanted to know (maybe) but were afraid to ask (really) about what goes on in the “heart of the house.” Little in Tomsky's background prepared him for his career path. Armed with a philosophy degree, he ends up working the valet stand at a newly opened luxury hotel in New Orleans, where he quickly moves from parking cars to front desk clerk to overnight housekeeping manager. Fifteen hour shifts come with the territory, as do lying, finessing, and bartering, all in the name of good customer service. Eventually he hits the big time when he is hired by an upscale Manhattan hotel, where for fun he and coworkers race down hallways on a power scooter at three a.m.

 

There are plenty of anecdotes that make this part-travel memoir, part-industry exposé a brisk, entertaining read. Some of it is disturbing, like knowing the housekeeper may be spraying furniture polish on your drinking glasses for that spotless shine. The author is also happy to share helpful insider tips, like how to get that coveted room upgrade and techniques for disputing mini-bar, also known as "fridge of joy" charges. Naturally, tipping figures prominently. Tomsky's honest introspection about the coworkers who form this closed society extends his writing to more than just a tell-all. With a clear-eyed wit, he deftly peels away layers of the hotel trade and its practices in order to enlighten even the most frequent traveler. Don't be surprised when the amusing and helpful appendices at the book’s end bring a wide smile.

 

Cynthia

 
 

Literary Gifts

Literary Gifts

posted by:
December 6, 2012 - 9:05am

The Books They Gave MeMany of us can remember receiving a life-changing book and the story behind it. Maybe it was a childhood birthday present, a memento from a failed relationship, an impulse buy, a bequest from a late relative, or a suggestion from a favorite teacher. Whatever the reason, the ways in which these special books enter our lives can often be as powerful as the books themselves. The Books They Gave Me: True Stories of Life, Love, and Lit, based on editor Jen Adams’ blog of the same name, chronicles over two hundred anonymous anecdotes about the books we give one another and why.

 

These candid submissions – with themes ranging from “How did she know?” to “What was he thinking?!” – celebrate the humorous, profound, and sometimes disastrous connections that our lives make through literature. A good number of the stories focus on breakups, but the collection never feels dull thanks to the constant stream of different voices and experiences. In fact, this charming, accessible little book can easily be read in one sitting. For those looking for further reading, this collection doubles as an extensive book list, cataloging a variety of classic novels, memoirs, poetry, self-help guides, and even dictionaries. Color illustrations of each featured title provide appealing visuals from beginning to end. The Books They Gave Me is a bibliophile’s dream and encourages readers to reflect upon their own treasured books. As one contributor beautifully puts it, “I believe that giving a book to a person is like giving a piece of your soul to them.”

Alex

 
 

Hungry Like the Wolf

In the Pleasure GrooveFor the children of the eighties, big hair and make-up ruled the music world. MTV made music visual, and successful artists embraced the music video as both a promotional tool and a method of self-expression. Perhaps no band embodied the visual storytelling of this decade as completely as Duran Duran, Britain’s “other” Fab Five. John Taylor, founding member and bass player, chronicles the band’s career highs and lows with In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death and Duran Duran.    

 

While Taylor does venture into the confessional arena, revealing the typical rock-star excesses of sex and drugs, the true pleasure of this biography lies in his first-person account of British music in the seventies and eighties. As a teen in Birmingham, he and friend Nick Bates (later Rhodes) pooled their pence in order to see their idols perform live. Sitting at the proverbial feet of Queen, Bowie, and Roxy Music, they soaked up music like sponges and learned that the look was as vital to the success of the music as the beat. The band that would become Duran Duran was born from these young lessons learned. As they grew into their ruffled shirts, their conceptual lyrics combined with new wave, highly-synthesized music to give birth to the sound known as New Romanticism. Duran Duran was perfectly poised for stardom at the start of the MTV era, and the band created ground-breaking videos that still set the standard today such as “Girls on Film”, “Hungry Like the Wolf”, and “Rio.”

 

In the Pleasure Groove is not a tell-all, nor is it simply an insider’s guide to the biggest names in eighties music. It is a smooth glide through more than twenty years of music history. Fans of eighties music, as well as those of us who were teenagers then, will enjoy reliving the decade’s watershed moments such as Madonna writhing in a wedding gown, and Bob Geldof’s charity extravaganza Live Aid. Perhaps the quietest Duran member, Taylor reveals enough about the band to keep Duranies happy; they will certainly want to read this book more than once.

Sam

 
 

Like a Rainbow

Cyndi Lauper: A MemoirCyndi Lauper: A Memoir, is a satisfying and poignant account of the girl who just wanted to have fun. But as she writes in this account of her rise to superstardom and ongoing fame, her life has been more than the image she portrayed when she burst onto the international scene in the mid-1980s. Her music, outrageous style, and love of family and friends are represented in a conversational manner. The use of many asides, and the return to topics she had seemingly dropped earlier in chapters makes for a memoir that could be the transcription of a long, chatty visit across a kitchen table with an old friend.

 

From her beginnings in Queens, New York and the early bands that she sang with, Lauper’s path to stardom began gradually. But when her album “She’s So Unusual” struck a chord with the MTV generation, her stratospheric rise to the top of the pop charts was ensured. A string of hits were powered by memorable videos that seemed inescapable to MTV viewers, and her unmistakable voice made even the casual radio listener take notice. While never again matching the commercial success of her breakthrough album, more hits followed, including “True Colors”. The song later became an anthem for the GLBT community that Lauper has long associated herself with. She does not hesitate to discuss her personal life in detail, including her fond relationships with her family, the heartache of a long-term but eventually ill-fated romance with her one-time manager, and a path to find happiness. Lauper touches on the rivalry that never really existed with Madonna, and wonders how her life would have turned out had she permanently relocated to Australia after a tour there. Frankly written, this memoir shines a light on a celebrity everyone knows superficially but few know well.

Todd

 
 

A Portrait of the President as a Depressed Young Man

The HypoCountless books have been written about Abraham Lincoln, some of which cover his mental health issues. In The Hypo: the Melancholic Young Lincoln, Noah van Sciver portrays Honest Abe’s depression in a way rarely seen so clearly. Starting from the point of Lincoln’s arrival in Springfield, Illinois, in 1837, van Sciver’s words and pictures bring to life the world of this place and time in American history. Lincoln comes to work as a lawyer with John Stuart, while also serving with the Illinois state legislature. Soon after getting to Springfield, he meets the philandering but good-hearted Joshua Speed with whom he shares an apartment and who becomes his closest confidant. Working at their two-person law firm, Lincoln meets Stuart’s cousin, Mary Todd, and is introduced to society life. Although Abe and Mary Todd quickly fall in love, her family disapproves of his low social standing, and each of their mental health issues hasten the dissolution of their engagement. Lincoln has a total breakdown, and is “nursed” back to health by a doctor using methods such as bloodletting and mercury treatments. Mary Todd’s own undiagnosed issues are manifested in debilitating migraines. With the help of Speed and other friends, they are eventually reunited, engaged again and married.

 

Completely rendered in black and white, Van Sciver’s pen-and-ink, crosshatch style is perfect in telling the story of our beloved sixteenth president’s pre-wedlock years. He captures Lincoln as often ill-at-ease, bumbling, and very much prone to sadness, but who is also occasionally able to command a room with amusing tales, poetic language, and political finesse. The frontier, with all its grime, poverty, and its class divide is also intensely illustrated, placing the reader directly into the setting. Readers of David Herbert Donald’s biography Lincoln, Joshua Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy, and those interested in the biopic of the legendary president (starring Daniel Day-Lewis) will find much to appreciate in this graphic presentation.

Todd

 
 

What Are You Reading?

What Are You Reading?

posted by:
November 1, 2012 - 7:01am

 

The End of Your Life Book ClubA wonderful accolade to literature and a memorial to his incredibly gifted and generous mother, Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club combines the two gracefully. From the title, it is clear that this book club eventually comes to a close. However, this is not a maudlin tale, but instead a celebration of a mother and son’s love.The book’s table of contents gives an immediate impression of some of what the book club covered; each chapter carries the title of the book that was discussed between the group’s two members. Schwalbe, a former editor at Hyperion, immediately sets the stage in the Sloan-Kettering care center where his mother, Mary Anne, receives chemotherapy for her advanced pancreatic cancer, and where many of their book discussions took place. Mary Anne has always been a dynamo, from her teaching days to doing aid work overseas (her passion is getting a national library built in Afghanistan), to the uncanny way she remembers everything. Each family member is well-described, from his younger sister, torn about moving to Geneva when she learns of her mother’s diagnosis, to Will’s older brother, a rock of support for the family. While the family has the means that many others may not, their situation, suffering, and grief is universal.

 

Books certainly play a major role in the text, and while there are many discussions about fictional works (titles by Wallace Stegner, Steig Larsson, and Alice Munro, among others), the most memorable passages come from books of poetry, self-help, and spirituality. Mary Anne and Will have differing views on matters of faith, but it is clear that each of them respects the other. This is a title that will resonate with many readers, especially those who were moved by memoirs such as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home

 

Todd

 
 

Cornucopia of the Curious

History abounds with innovators, leaders, peacemakers and visionaries, men and women who have performed great deeds in the world and have earned their respective chapters in the history books.  Chris Mikul’s latest work is no such history book.  Instead, The Eccentropedia: The Most Unusual People Who Have Ever Lived is a delightful hodgepodge of 226 of history’s most unusual characters – charmers, madmen and ne’er-do-wells who are worthy of an amusing footnote, if not a chapter in the hallowed halls of history.

 

One such is Edward William Cole, who rose to become the most successful bookseller in Australia. Born in 1832, the son of a laborer, Cole possessed an extraordinary flair for advertising, which he utilized to found increasingly successful book arcades and even to find a wife.  More than an excellent businessman, Cole was a generous spirit, who would allow patrons to read in his arcades all day without purchase. He also vehemently opposed racism and published pamphlets expounding its absurdity.

 

Mikul’s book is peppered with similarly curious histories. He reveals the darker side of Bobby Fischer, the genius widely considered to be history’s finest chess player. He also delves into the history of Hetty Green, one of Wall Street’s savviest and wealthiest investors, whose investment acumen was matched only by her obsessive stinginess, a predilection which ultimately cost her son his leg. Mikul offers the compelling tale of Moondog, the blind street dweller with an extraordinary gift for music whose Norse-inspired apparel earned him the moniker “Viking of 6th Avenue.”  A celebration of nonconformists, mavericks, and the just plain bizarre, Mikul’s collection of character vignettes is broadly recommended for readers who seek to be immediately engaged by their reading material.  

Meghan

 
 

The Man With the Golden Pen

Bond on BondBond fans (and we know who we are) have a nearly boundless appetite for trivia and anecdotes about Britain's most famous Secret Service agent. But who would have guessed that one of James Bond's biggest fans would turn out to be the man who portrayed him in seven films during the 70s and 80s? In Bond on Bond: Reflections on 50 Years of James Bond Movies, Roger Moore displays a comprehensive knowledge of and appreciation for all things Bond. This includes the movies as well as Ian Fleming's original novels and stories, and even tie-in titles such as Charlie Higson's Young Bond books for teen readers.

 

Also unexpected is Moore's wry, self-deprecating sense of humor. He pokes appreciative fun at the gadgets, cars, and over-the-top plots of many of the movies. He spares his own performances least of all, saying, "I've never been guilty of method acting—or even acting, if you want to argue a point." His stories of malfunctioning secret weapons, cranky Bond girls, and location nightmares are balanced by his obvious affection for his co-workers and for the master spy he refers to as "Jimmy." Timed to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Bond on film (Dr. No, starring Sean Connery as Bond, premiered in 1962), Bond on Bond is a surprisingly funny and fresh book, far superior to other recent books of Bond miscellany.

Paula W.

 
 

Dreamboat Ann - and Nancy

Kicking and DreamingHeart has been around for decades, breaking into the largely male world of rock music earlier than most female performers. In Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock & Roll, Ann and Nancy Wilson alternately describe their extraordinary lives in the music industry. Picking up stories that the other starts, the format reads smoothly, and indicates the strong ties these sisters have shared all these years. Beginning with the childhoods they experienced as daughters of a major in the Marines, Ann, Nancy, their older sister Lynn and their mother moved constantly, finding it hard to put down roots. Because of this, their family (known as “The Big Five”) focused inwardly. Ann, a classic middle child, dealt with body image and stuttering problems that vanished when she found her voice. Later, Nancy, the youngest, found comfort in relationships with her band mates.

 

The story of the band’s genesis and first big break is vividly recounted, along with the bumps along the way. Their first hit “Magic Man” was released while they were briefly living in Vancouver, and they became stars in Canada before in their native country. This period brought success after classics like “Dog and Butterfly” and “Barracuda” became showstoppers. After some rough times and disappointing album sales in the cocaine-fueled early 80s, Heart’s second-act rebirth came with hits like “What About Love”, “These Dreams” and “Alone”. Included, too, is the interesting story of how Ann, to this day, refuses to sing their controversial 1989 hit “All I Want to Do is Make Love to You”. Full of tidbits about musicians the women have come to know over the years, including Stevie Nicks, Elton John, John Mellencamp, and many in the Seattle rock scene, this is a strong memoir about a life on the road, but also the story of two sisters who broke through a glass ceiling and came out on top.

Todd