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The Habit of Art

The Habit of Art

posted by:
July 26, 2012 - 7:49am

Flannery O'Connor: The CartoonsIf you like American short stories, chances are you’ve read Flannery O’Connor, whose biting sense of humor, peculiar characters, and hauntingly redemptive tales have made her one of America’s most celebrated writers. But did you know that before she wrote fiction, O’Connor had originally set out to be a cartoonist? The new book Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons explores this iconic author’s lesser-known talent and brings her illustrations together for the very first time.

 

O’Connor began drawing at the early age of five and went on to make cartoons for her high school and college newspapers. These cartoons, with their quirky, almost grotesque style and spot-on commentary about student life in the early 1940s, made O’Connor something of a local celebrity at her Georgia college. Those who have read O’Connor’s classic short story collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find or her 1962 novel Wise Blood will love seeing her trademark humor on display in these early drawings. In one cartoon, two students dance joyfully hand-in-hand while the caption below reads, “These two express the universal feeling of heart-brokenness over school closing.” In another, a lone bespectacled young woman (clearly meant to be the author herself) watches her popular classmates dance at a college social and says to the reader, “Oh well, I can always be a Ph.D.” These speak to O’Connor’s knack for carefully observing the world around her, a process she once described as the habit of art.

 

In addition to a handsomely presented gallery, Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons also features an essay delving into the author’s life and eventual transition to writing fiction. This interesting book has great appeal for O’Connor fans and anyone who enjoys satirical cartoons.  

 

Alex

 
 

Of Roots and Stones

House of StoneHey America, Your Roots Are ShowingPulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid, a Middle East correspondent for The New York Times, was an Oklahoman of Lebanese descent. In 2006, faced with a crumbling marriage stateside, Shadid focused on restoring his great-grandfather’s abandoned home in the village of Marjayoun, Lebanon. His book, House of Stone, is as much of a lesson on the political and cultural history of the Ottoman empire as seen from Marjayoun as it is a chronicle of an American trying to conduct the frustrating business of home improvement with local contractors while recreating his “bayt.” A nuanced Arabic word roughly meaning home, a bayt is the place of one’s roots. Mr. Shadid’s poignant story merging his family’s past and present was published posthumously; he died of an asthma attack this past February while attempting to leave Syria on horseback. Surprisingly, especially in light of the beautifully detailed architectural descriptions of the home, the book does not include photographs.

 

Also dealing with family history but on a far lighter note is Megan Smolenyak’s Hey America, Your Roots Are Showing.  Smolenyak is a professional genealogist and chief family historian at Ancestry.com. Her clients have included the U.S. Army (finding primary next-of-kin for soldiers,) the FBI (civil rights cold case crime-solving,) the BBC (tracing family members of sailors who died on the USS Monitor), and even her own curiosity, as she sketches the family tree of Michelle Obama.  These assignments and more are covered in her latest book as she utilizes the traditional paper trail and oral interviews, supplemented by DNA testing, to solve family mysteries. Entertaining but always respectful toward her subjects, Smolenyak finds an unlikely link between Al Sharpton and Strom Thurmond, and debunks the myth that immigrants’ surnames were mangled at Ellis Island by uncaring clerks. Hey America, Your Roots are Showing is an enjoyable look at genealogical detective work.

 

Lori

 
 

A Self-Made Culinarian

Yes, ChefMarcus Samuelsson has a fascinating story to tell in his refreshingly candid memoir, Yes, Chef. At its heart is food and family, guided by years of discipline and sacrifice. His lifelong quest to engage customers through their senses with a denouement of flavors has resulted in a winding culinary journey for the Ethiopian-born 42-year old. Today he sits atop the restaurant world.  

 

Samuelsson's passion began at an early age. Orphaned as a toddler, he remembers berbere, the reddish-orange spice mixture his mother sprinkled liberally on their food. Adopted by a middle class couple from Goteborg, Sweden, it was his Swedish grandmother, Helga, who encouraged her young grandson's interests. She introduced him to rustic cooking and layering of flavors. Her signature dish was a roast chicken, which she killed old-school style ("Come here, boom!").

 

The wiry, soccer-playing Samuelsson viewed all his cooking assignments as opportunities. From mopping as a kitchen boy in Sweden to restaurant stints in Switzerland and France and aboard cruise ships, Samuelsson absorbed the diversity of ethnic flavors. At age 24 he earned the position of executive chef of New York's Aquavit restaurant, and a three-star rating from The New York Times.

 

Samuelsson tells his story in an honest, retrospective manner. Growing up in a mixed race family, he didn't become aware of his black identity, and its challenges until older. He once ignored the only other black worker in a kitchen because he was worried what others would think if they were seen talking. That candor is refreshing, as is his poignant description of his return to Ethiopia. A bellwether in an industry known for ego-driven personalities, the reserved, award-winning Samuelsson is as comfortable cooking for a state dinner as he is in the kitchen of his latest New York restaurant, Red Rooster Harlem. Aspiring chefs and foodies will feel at home.

Cynthia

 
 

You Must Remember This

Total Memory MakeoverMarilu Henner of Taxi fame offers a unique memory manual in Total Memory Makeover: Uncover Your Past, Take Charge of Your Future. As one of a handful of people with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), Henner discusses her strong recall ability. She shares how it has helped her, and offers advice for boosting recollection. Henner knew from an early age that her memory was different, but she did not know there were others like her until she began working with researchers at the University of California,Irvine. While the average person can recall up to 11 events from each year of their life, Henner remembers every day of her life since the age of 12 in detail. 

 

Henner’s approach to memory strengthening is not about using mnemonic devices or strategies. Combining anecdotes from her personal and professional lives with scientific data and exercises designed to spark specific types of memories, Henner gently guides readers on a tour through their past. Simple exercises have the reader revisiting personal events (21st birthday) or recalling major world events (President Reagan’s assassination attempt) and remembering details from the day. Other chapters include effective journal keeping and working with children to develop a strong memory at an early age.

 

Henner documents methods to stop turning painful memories into emotional baggage and maintains that strong memory will create a positive blueprint for your future. Would you still eat that doughnut if you remembered the thrill of fitting into skinny jeans five years ago? Would you ask for that raise if you recalled the confidence boost when your prom date said yes? Would you get out of a new romance sooner if it brought back memories of a bad ex? Shakespeare wrote that “the past is prologue,” an idea supported by the principles behind Marilu’s memory makeover, where the focus is on you.

Maureen

 
 

Move Over, Holden

Kasher in the RyeIn Moshe Kasher’s new memoir Kasher in the Rye: The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and Then Turned 16, the stand-up comic chronicles his renegade, drug-addicted adolescence in California during the early ’90s with a careful balance of humor and painful honesty.

 

Following his difficult childhood – the challenge of having two deaf parents, starting therapy sessions when he was just six years old, and being dragged by his mother on a “vacation” to California that ends up being more like abduction – Kasher feels hopelessly broken and lost. He finds it impossible to fit in at his Oakland public school, so he gets involved with the wrong crowd and starts a downward spiral of gang violence, theft, vandalism, and drug use, all before he is even old enough to drive. It isn’t until several near-death experiences and three stays at a children’s psychiatric hospital that Kasher finally decides to turn his life around. But even with his new determination, how can he learn to break this tragic cycle if a life of confusion, anger, and self-destruction is all he knows?

 

Moshe Kasher manages to tell his story in a way that’s hilarious and heartbreaking without ever becoming sentimental. The anecdotes he tells of his wayward youth will have readers laughing at the ridiculousness of it all while rooting for Kasher throughout his journey. If you are a fan of David Sedaris’ essays or Bill Clegg’s memoir Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, you will find much to enjoy in this honest, funny, and redemptive true story.

 

 

Alex

 
 

City of Light and Transformation

Paris I Love You But You're Bringing Me DownDreaming in FrenchAs a child, Rosecrans Baldwin went to Paris with his family and became transfixed by its beauty. Later, as a twenty-something, Baldwin uses a connection to secure a job at an ad agency in Paris in need of a native English speaker. In the humorous and breezy memoir Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, he moves himself and his wife Rachel to France, where initially all the brilliance and luster of the City of Light shines upon them. That is, until he realizes that his facility with French isn’t quite as strong as he thought. Too quickly, the countless hassles of daily life in another culture start to take their toll. Bureaucratic red tape is overwhelming. Despite these obstacles, the small joys of Parisian life constantly astound the young couple. Baldwin manages to write his debut novel (the since-published You Lost Me There), adding his name to the long list of Americans finding creative inspiration in Paris.

 

A very different look at the expatriate-in-Paris experience is Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis. Alice Kaplan describes post-war Paris and the many Americans who were inspired to travel to Paris for varying lengths of time. Each of the three women she focuses on came to Paris for a year to study abroad. The city made an indelible impression on their futures, whether it was the “Frenchness” Jackie Kennedy later brought to the office of First Lady, or how the intellectualism of the city reinvigorated Susan Sontag’s writing and sense of purpose. The political upheaval Angela Davis witnessed in France inspired her to play an integral role in the Civil Rights movement back home. The transformative power of place is clearly displayed in this look at the ways we can become products of our environment.

Todd

 
 

Rambling Man

My Cross to BearMy Cross to Bear has all the usual trappings that we’ve come to expect from a rock biography. There are the standard stories of groupies, squabbling with other band members, chemical excess and failed marriages. Beyond the basic musician biography ingredients though, there’s also a fascinating life story that remains very Southern throughout.

 

Gregg Allman begins his life in Nashville, Tennessee, eventually travels all over the world and currently lives in Savannah, Georgia. Throughout his fame, fortune and travels, he never ventured far from his roots in his outlook and tone. Indeed, one of the pleasures of this book is “hearing” the voice of Gregg Allman and his Southern phrasings. One fine example: he loses his virginity and declares the experience to be "the best thing since black-eyed peas.”

 

My Cross to Bear opens at the Allman Brothers’ Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction. At this point, Gregg Allman is a severe alcoholic. He sincerely tries to stay sober for the ceremony but fails miserably. This was one of the lowest points in his life. He embarrassed his family, the rest of the band and most of all, himself. This seems to be a turning point and at that moment, he decides to turn his life around.

 

Like many musician biographies, much of the story is about Allman’s struggles with various addictions throughout his life. The real story here is that of the Allman brothers themselves (Gregg and Duane). Their story is one of humble beginnings, unimaginable fame, wasted fortunes and incalculable loss, including the tragic death of both Berry Oakley and Duane Allman. Duane Allman’s spirit is really the guiding force in the book. Older brother Duane could be credited with starting the Allman Brothers Band; his guitar work was a key element in the Allman brothers’ distinct sound. One gets the feeling that Gregg never felt that he quite measured up to big brother, Duane.

 

My Cross to Bear is satisfying, entertaining read from beginning to end. Quite simply, it is a Southern-fried version of the “sex, drugs and rock and roll” story. What’s not to love about that?

Zeke

 
 

Jen’s Life Lessons for Reluctant Adults

Jeneration XIn Jeneration X, humor writer Jen Lancaster takes on growing up and acting her age. She tackles important challenges like buying a house, getting a mammogram, and hosting Thanksgiving for the first time in typical Jen style. Her wickedly funny writing and short essays make this book the perfect accompaniment to a hot summer afternoon at the pool.

 

As with her previous bestselling memoirs, she writes Jeneration X in a series of related anecdotes rather than a chronological story.  Jen provides readers with commentary and snarky footnotes to explain her Gladys Kravitz-like compulsion to spy on her neighbors and the problem with swimsuits with skirts.  Jen’s readers are already familiar with her husband Fletch, her friends and family, and her menagerie of pets, so reading a new book always feels like catching up with an old friend over cocktails. To learn more about all things Jen, visit her blog, Jennsylvania.

 

Jeneration X features several appearances by Jen’s best friend and partner in crime Stacey Ballis, whose new novel Off the Menu will be published this summer. The novel follows Alana Ostermann, an assistant to a celebrity chef. She’s happy with her life until she meets RJ, who makes her realize that it is time to reassess her life. To celebrate the book’s release, Stacey is holding a contest to win a lunch date with Stacey and Jen (aka Stennifer). The deadline for entry is July 1; contest details can be found here.

Beth

 
 

Naturalist, Hunter, Inventor, Millionaire

BirdseyeAlthough the name Clarence Birdseye immediately conjures up images of frozen vegetables, the subject of historian Mark Kurlansky’s Birdseye:The Adventures of a Curious Man accomplished so much more. This fascinating biography shows the man as a curious problem solver and opportunist, always quick to devise inventive solutions while making money along the way. Birdseye was a naturalist from an early age, as well as an avid hunter. At the age of ten, young Clarence earned his first shotgun with the profits he made by shipping live muskrat to an English aristocrat who was stocking an estate. He promptly taught himself the art of taxidermy, even attempting to teach others for money.

 

As a student at Amherst studying the sciences, Birdseye spent his free time “wandering the fields with a shotgun on his shoulder.” He was forced to drop out due to lack of money.  His job as an assistant naturalist with the U.S. Biological Survey stoked his interest in cooking such exotic meats as chipmunk, mice, and rattlesnake. A later job with the Department of Agriculture sent him packing to the Bitterroot Valley of Montana as part of a group looking to study Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Birdseye put his hunting skills and enthusiasm to good use, killing a variety of mammals that host the carrier of the disease, the wood tick. His contribution to the study was notable.

 

Luckily his wife, Eleanor, was a patient woman who didn’t seem to mind her husband’s frequent absences. A later adventure saw him in the frozen land of Labrador where his interests turned to fox farming. His journal and letters to his family (which eventually included six children) were full of descriptions of food, especially recipes featuring unusual provisions like seal meat and porcupine.A deep interest in food preservation led him to begin experimenting with various freezing techniques, beginning with snow pack. Birdseye realized that freezing food is far from a straightforward process if one desires a palatable thawed product. Eventually his determination and sharp sense of observation paid off, leading to innovations that revolutionized the way people eat.

 

Birdseye:The Adventures of a Curious Man, holds wide appeal for anyone who enjoys intriguing nonfiction. The self-made man comes alive through Kurlansky’s evocative descriptions and choice details. Readers who enjoyed his previous classic titles (which included mentions of Birdseye) Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, and Salt: A World History, will find much to like here.

 

 

Paula G.

 
 

Listen and Laugh

BossypantsTina Fey’s bestselling memoir, Bossypants, published by Hachette Audio, claimed top honors at the 2012 Audie Awards, announced last week at the Audio Publishers Association's 17th annual Audies Gala  in New York. “Like going out for coffee with an old and funny friend” is how judges described this year’s winner for Audiobook of the Year. Noted for delivering “on all fronts,” Fey was recognized for her stellar performance and a smart marketing campaign that included both print and social media.  Bossypants also won in the Biography/Memoir category.

 

Among other works celebrated, Shatner Rules: Your Guide to Understanding the Shatnerverse and the World at Large by William Shatner with Chris Regan, won in the Humor category. Produced by Penguin Audio, the opinionated Shatner narrates in his inimitable speaking style, "his rules for life with great panache and shards of autobiographical detail." Dispensing worldly wisdom is all in good humor in the octogenarian’s sometimes messy universe.  For a complete list of winners, visit The Audies website here.

Cynthia