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Tommy Gun in a Black Violin Case

Gangster SquadPaul Lieberman’s Gangster Squad: Covert Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles brings a new mob story to light. In the 1940s, L.A. officials were extremely concerned about gangster crime, so they created a new off-the-books squad of eight officers to combat mob crime called the Gangster Squad. The squad’s members were still listed on the rosters of their old stations. They had no office; they operated out of two old Fords and met in parking lots and on street corners. They made no arrests, handing cases off to homicide, robbery, or vice. Each squad member was assigned his own Tommy gun, which one squad member was known to keep under his bed in a black violin case. The gangster squad’s goal was to make life difficult for mob criminals. Since they were a shadow group, they didn’t bother with warrants. They bugged everything from television sets to a mobster’s mistress’s bed to gain intelligence on their targets.

 

Local gangster Mickey Cohen was one of the squad’s major foes. Pursuing Cohen was an obsession for Sergeants Jerry Wooters and Jack O’Mara, two very different men whose only common goal was taking down Cohen. Their separate plans to catch Cohen collided one night in 1959 at Rondelli’s restaurant in a shooting that resulted in the death of Jack “The Enforcer” Whalen. The fallout from that night brought this chapter in L.A.’s history to a close. Lieberman’s journalism background is evident in the way that he tells the story. He did extensive research and interviewed surviving members of both the squad and the mob. If this sounds like a story made for the big screen, it is. Gangster Squad will be coming to a theater near you. The film, which stars Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, and Sean Penn, arrives in theaters in January 2013.

Beth

 
 

A Banquet for the Senses

Alyssa Harad has a secret: she is obsessed with perfume. She owns a dizzying array of tiny bottles of scent, tucked away in shoeboxes, drawers, and what she calls her “perfume closet”. She plans her vacations around visiting exclusive boutiques stocked with the rarest and most coveted perfumes, elixirs so precious that she can barely dream of affording a sample, let alone an entire bottle. She became so entranced that she wrote a book, Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride, that describes her gradual emersion into the decadent world of perfumery. 

 

Harad is not the most likely person to develop a fixation for such a sensuous and rather commercial subject.  After spending years obtaining a PhD in English, Harad thought she knew who she was—literate, feminist, more likely to spend money on books than on beauty supplies.  But she was also drifting, aimless, searching for an avocation that would spark her passions. Oh, and did she mention she was getting married? To distract her from her life and her upcoming wedding, Harad embarked on a voyage into the mysterious and complex realm of perfume, where she found a community of bloggers, commenters, perfumers, and retail salespeople who share her preoccupation with all things olfactory. Her descriptions of how the different notes of a perfume unfold over time are exotic and imaginative. She can paint images, evoke memories, and plunge into the unknown, all from a single drop of fragrance.

 

As her wedding date draws near, Harad reconciles her conflicting feelings over her marriage and her obsession, leaving her more grounded and more fully present in her own life. Coming to My Senses is a personal journey of rediscovery, remembrance, and recognition that will tease your senses and soften your heart.

 

Rachael

 
 

Downton Abbey’s Competition

Call the MidfieBBC’s new series based on Jennifer Worth’s best-selling memoir Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times broke viewer records when it attracted 9.8 million viewers for its opening episode. The show’s popularity only grew from there with later episodes overtaking Downton Abbey’s record ratings. The ensemble cast, including Jessica Raine and Vanessa Redgrave, brings to life the harsh living conditions in London’s poorest slums in the 1950s. The memoir that inspired the series was recently rereleased in time for the show’s US television premiere.

 

At age 22, Jennifer Worth moved into an Anglican convent to work as a midwife to the poorest women in East London. The world she describes is almost unimaginable to modern audiences. Few people had cars, so children typically played in the smaller side streets where there was no traffic. Large families lived in small two-room apartments, many of which had cold running water but no indoor bathrooms. Antibiotics were new and rarely used, and nearly all births took place in the patient’s home.

 

Armed with only a bicycle and bag of supplies, Worth and the other midwives from Nonnatus House delivered 80-100 babies per month in their patients’ homes. Although the details of her patients’ lives and their living conditions are sometimes difficult to read, Worth also brings humor and hope to the stories. Told in her unique voice, Call the Midwife is filled with colorful characters from the nuns and midwives to the patients themselves. This frank and sometimes graphic memoir brings to life a fascinating piece of history. Call the Midwife will air in the US on PBS beginning Sunday, September 30th, and will be released on DVD in November. To get a taste of the show, check out this trailer.

Beth

 
 

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About DNA (But Were Afraid to Ask)

The Violinist's ThumbOur genes can be likened to a story, and the gray, sticky paste of DNA is the language in which the story is written, according to Sam Kean, author of The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code. Kean relates the history and function of DNA and genes and their effect on collective and individual human development.

 

Watson, Crick, and Mendel are familiar names linked to DNA and gene theory but few people have heard of Thomas Hunt Morgan and his assistant, ladies’ man Calvin Bridges, or Catholic Sister Miriam Michael Stimson. Kean fleshes out years of tedious research undertaken by lesser-known scientists that paved the way for the award-winning discoveries. RNA, DNA palindromes, Y chromosomes, and mitochondria—all hard science terms that could prove overwhelming—are balanced by Kean with humor and relatable anecdotes. DNA injury and resiliency is illustrated by the case of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a man unfortunate enough to be exposed to the bomb detonation in Hiroshima, who then travelled to Nagasaki in time to be blasted again.

 

The Violinist’s Thumb refers to virtuoso Niccolo Paganini, whose musical gifts were, in part, due to a genetic error inhibiting his body’s ability to produce collagen; his disease allowed him to stretch his hands to perform amazing violin feats.  Unfortunately it also contributed to his poor health and early demise. Kean explains how cat hoarding behavior can be linked to careless litter box cleaning, and cautions the reader to avoid eating a polar bear’s liver should you find yourself stranded at the North Pole. The book ends by raising thorny questions about cloning and the implications of analyzing a single person’s genome. Readers who enjoy popular science writing, such as Mary Roach’s Stiff, will find a winner in The Violinist’s Thumb.

Lori

 
 

The Final Season

PaternoJoe Paterno long identified with Virgil’s reluctant Trojan hero Aeneas, who eschewed individual glory on his way to founding Rome. Aeneas fulfilled his destiny in a way that the late Penn State coach admired. Aeneas, like Paterno, was a team player.  In his new biography, Paterno, author Joe Posnanski paints a complicated picture of the consummate team player and his rise and fall as a coaching legend.

 

Posnanski cleverly organized Paterno’s story into five operatic acts, beginning with his success-driven upbringing in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, and concluding with the tragic repercussions of the 2011 Penn State sexual abuse scandal.  By the end, and in a span of about three months, the winningest coach in college history had been consumed by scandal, cancer, and ultimately death.

 

Excellence and success meant different things to Joe Paterno. Examples of both are in plentiful supply in Posnanski’s book. There are anecdotes and testimonials but also contradictions. A former writer for Sports Illustrated, Posnanski visualized a different book when he was granted full access to Paterno last year. Then the Jerry Sandusky case erupted.   A chapter entitled “Sandusky” explores the emotional armor of these powerful men.  Apparently there was no love lost between the two. There are some interesting sidebars about Paterno’s impressions of the second most popular coach in Happy Valley.  

 

Although the author’s tone is generally sympathetic, it is still a white-hot topic as to why Paterno, a lifelong rule follower who valued his young men, did not step up for those most vulnerable. "One of Paterno's great strengths, and perhaps one of his great flaws was his fierce loyalty and absolute trust in the people closest to him," according to Posnanski. That observation remains the crux in evaluating the aggregate of a remarkable 46-year career that reached the pinnacle of heights before plunging to the depths of misery.

Cynthia

 
 

Reciprocal Awareness

Reciprocal Awareness

posted by:
September 6, 2012 - 6:05am

Gifts of the CrowSeattle wildlife scientist John Marzluff partners with illustrator-naturalist Tony Angell to create Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans. While absorbing and fascinating, this is not the usual natural history of another species that shares our environment. Instead, the authors take an approach that delves deep into the neurological similarities between crows and humans, and look at numerous studies of the birds’ behavior that show how our noisy neighbors have adapted to our lives.

 

These birds share many characteristics of humans. In a chapter that discusses the emotional lives of crows and ravens, anecdotes describe these birds’ approaches to injured comrades, and particularly their grieving rituals. While crows often eat the dead of other species, they rarely if ever even touch their own, but instead come close and linger in a sort of respect-paying process. Also considered in great detail is the way that crows approach play. Scientists consider species that have incorporated play into their lives as highly advanced. The “social brain network” of these evolved mammals and birds is shown to be complex, and indicates multifaceted consideration of decision and realization. Crows have been observed playing “ring-around-the-rosy” with themselves and with unwitting humans who suddenly realize they too are part of the bird’s game.

 

Humans and crows have been watching each other for generations: cultures that laud crows as our forebears are plentiful worldwide, from India, to the American Southwest, and most famously the Canadian Pacific coast.  While we have learned much about crows and their relatives through scientific and neurological study, there is still much more to understand. Our mutual ecologies and simultaneous evolution will continue to shape both our species moving forward.

Todd

 
 

A City's Redemption

A City's Redemption

posted by:
September 6, 2012 - 6:01am

Season of the WitchSeason of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love by David Talbot is a deeply researched, fascinating cultural history of one of our most unique cities, San Francisco. Talbot focuses on the city’s slide toward the dark disillusionment of the 1970s and the devastating AIDS years of the 1980s. The founder of Salon magazine, Talbot knows how to tell a great story, offering fascinating glimpses into the lives several SF notables, including Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia and Harvey Milk.  Talbot rounds out his history with San Francisco’s redemption, as the City by the Bay transformed itself into one of the most innovative urban centers in America.

 

This epicenter of “flower power” took a more ominous turn toward the end of the 1960s. Harder drugs like heroin became more prominent. City government was less effective. Crime was rampant. Talbot illuminates the dark underbelly of the city during the 1970s and 80s. He writes of its overall dangerous quality during this time. He also highlights several major San Francisco crime stories that transfixed the nation, such as Charles Manson, Patty Hearst, Harvey Milk, Jim Jones and the Zebra Murders.

 

Still reeling from the difficult 1970s, San Francisco was then ravaged by the AIDS epidemic in the 80s.  Talbot reminds us of those dark years when San Francisco virtually became a ghost town, a time when it seemed like everyone knew someone (or many people) who had died of AIDS. Coming out of these harrowing years, San Francisco emerged to be one of the most vibrant, progressive cities in the country. Talbot does an outstanding job of describing San Francisco’s lowest years in modern history and then tracing this city’s path to greatness.

Zeke

 
 

Let's Get Ready to Rumble

GooseTony Siragusa, one of the most beloved former Ravens, writes about football and life in Goose: the Outrageous Life and Times of a Football Guy. Siragusa’s path to the Super Bowl wasn’t easy, and his was a career which almost didn’t happen. Readers meet Goose as a child in New Jersey and learn that athletics did not always come easy. In fact, he used his failure to make the Little League All Star team at age twelve as future motivation to prove his prowess. He had a successful career as a college athlete at the University of Pittsburgh and also enjoyed the extra-curricular fun associated with college days. Unfortunately, he injured both knees while playing and lost a season to rehabilitation.

 

During the 1990 NFL draft, Siragusa was not picked through twelve rounds, but was selected by the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent. The team doctor thought he would be lucky to survive a few years in the NFL. But what do doctors know? Siragusa played for twelve seasons, signing with the Ravens in 1997. He will forever be remembered in Baltimore as a critical member of the 2000 Ravens’ defense which allowed the fewest points in NFL regular season history, and which went on to bring the Lombardi Trophy to Charm City by claiming victory in Super Bowl XXXV. Today, Siragusa is a popular sideline reporter on the Fox network and cohost of DIY Network’s Man Caves. Football falls will appreciate the insider details, but this is more than a tale of the gridiron. Siragusa shares life lessons, stories about small town living, and the importance of perseverance in this breezy, humorous read which will appeal even to those readers who don’t claim citizenship in Ravens Nation.  

Maureen

 
 

Here's to You, Mrs. Robinson

Mrs. Robinson's DisgraceBefore British Parliament passed the Matrimonial Causes Act, marriages could only be dissolved in a private Act of Parliament, the cost and scandal of which made divorces rare. During the summer of 1858, that changed. The new Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes began to grant divorces to the English middle class. On June 14, 1858, a man named Henry Robinson petitioned the court to dissolve his marriage to his wife Isabella on grounds that she had committed adultery. The evidence came from her own diary, portions of which were read aloud over the course of the trial and then widely published in London newspapers. London was riveted by the scandal. Kate Summerscale brings this fascinating story to modern audiences in Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady.

 

In her diary, Isabella Robinson regularly reflected on her unhappiness with her life and marriage. She also wrote about a relationship with a man named Edward Lane, who publicly denied the affair. Standards for proving a wife’s adultery in divorce cases were so low that the diary was potentially enough to condemn Isabella in court despite her husband’s multiple infidelities. To protect Lane’s reputation, Isabella’s attorneys and doctors convinced her to present the diaries as fictional, and her only viable legal defense was to claim that she had imagined the affair because she suffered from sexual mania.

 

Summerscale first read about this story in a book about Victorian scandals while she was researching her previous bestseller, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. She began to investigate the story because she was intrigued by the double standards that women faced in Victorian divorce courts; she wanted to know the truth about Isabella Robinson. Her storytelling results in the gripping tale of Mrs. Robinson’s fall from grace and the ensuing scandal.

Beth

 
 

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

DreamlandImagine waking up in the middle of the night on the floor, disoriented, clutching your leg in pain. How did you get there? Why aren’t you still asleep in bed? And what happened to your leg? After actually living through this frightening sleepwalking scenario, David K. Randall, a journalist for Reuters, decided to investigate his personal nightmare, determined to find out  how he could prevent it from happening again. His book, Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, leads us into the mysterious and occasionally bizarre corners of neurobiology, psychology, and sociology that deal with how and why we sleep.

 

Each chapter in this fascinating book deals with a different sleep conundrum, from sleep exhaustion in the military to the effect of artificial light on circadian rhythms to whether you can commit murder while sleeping. Over the course of the book a deceptively simple formula emerges—what you do while you are awake affects your sleep, and how you sleep affects your mind and body while you are awake. Intriguing tidbits of information sneak their way into the pages with such frequency that the reader marvels at how little she seems to know about such a vital bodily function. 

 

Though not a scientist himself, Randall’s forays into the realm of sleep science are well backed by an abundance of research, as evinced by the lengthy bibliography he includes at the back of the book.  His prose remains accessible, captivating, and often humorous while still keeping science at its core.  Dreamland provides an enigmatic taste of the often unsolved mysteries of sleep science that is sure to satisfy both the curious and the casual reader. 

 

Rachael