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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

 
 

Yes We Canada!

Yes We Canada!

posted by:
August 23, 2012 - 6:03am

America, But BetterIn these days of political polarization in the United States, an unlikely party has come to the rescue of our fractured populous. In America, But Better: The Canada Party Manifesto, humorists Chris Cannon and Brian Calvert lay out an “intervention from your continental BFF”. With the scantest of seriousness, the authors skewer American stereotypes on issues such as illegal immigration, gun control, obesity, and marriage equality. Starting with a cheeky foreword by none other than Abraham Lincoln, the witty and pointed observations about the direction of America are by turns hilarious and mildly shaming.

 

This is a quick read, peppered with sidebar promises of what will change if the Canada Party is elected to run the US: “We will continue building oil pipelines, but they will carry maple syrup. If there’s a spill, at least the animals will be tasty.” One chapter describes the benefits of combining similar cities within the two countries as a cost-saving measure, including Van Francisco, Queboston (two places where no visitors can understand the locals), and Dalgary. Another takes on corporations as people, use of the metric system, and of course, a primer on hockey. Wry, silly, and smart, America, But Better is a not-so-gentle nudge that pokes fun at American Exceptionalism, and the way the rest of the world views us as a nation.

Todd

 
 

We Will Rock You

MercuryThe Man Who Sold the WorldMickGet out your bell bottoms, glitter, and eyeliner and celebrate the music of the 1970s. Delve into the exploits of three rock gods in new biographies, just published in July. It doesn’t get much more fascinating than the life stories of Freddie Mercury, Mick Jagger and David Bowie. Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury by rock journalist Lesley Ann Jones attempts to reveal the real Freddie Mercury. Jones traces his fascinating journey from a young boy raised in India and Zanzibar to the lead singer of Queen, one of the most successful super-groups of the 1970s. Jones depicts Mercury’s childhood, his rise to fame, and his friendship with Elton John. Jones traces Queen’s trajectory into super-group status, complete with the usual stories of rock and roll debauchery.  

 

The one and only Ziggy Stardust is the subject of Peter Doggett’s new biography, The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s. Doggett chooses to write about Bowie’s most influential decade. He begins his analysis with “Space Oddity” from 1969 and rounds out the book, covering Bowie’s 1980 LP, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). A rock journalist and critic for decades, Doggett is considered to be one of the few writers who could pull off an effective, insightful look at Bowie’s impact on music and popular culture. Indeed, this new biography has already garnered positive reviews. Library Journal calls it “a complete treat.” Rob Fitzpatrick from London’s Sunday Times says the book is “astonishing and absorbing.”

 

Few bands are as influential and long lasting as The Rolling Stones. Mick: The Wild Life and Mad Genius of Mick Jagger  is a candid “tell-all” of the flamboyant front man. Based on interviews with friends, family members and other musicians, Mick is gossipy and salacious. This one is for readers who are interested in Jagger’s sexual exploits, drug use, and opinions on everything from Lady Gaga to Kanye West.

Zeke

 
 

American Royalty

American Royalty

posted by:
August 20, 2012 - 6:03am

Mary's MosaicJack 1939Here in America, we don’t have a Charles, Diana, and Camilla nor a William and Kate. We do, however, have the Kennedy clan. From the enchanted Camelot era to the recent tragedy of Robert Kennedy Jr.’s wife’s suicide, this extended family’s accomplishments and foibles play out in the press and provide fodder for books to satisfy a public curiosity which shows no sign of waning. Two recent releases, the true crime Mary’s Mosaic by Peter Janney, and the fictional Jack 1939 penned by Francine Mathews, mine the Kennedy history and mystique while each traveling a very different path.

 

Who really killed Jack Kennedy?  Trying to sort out the conspiracy theories surrounding the President’s death is akin to falling down a rabbit hole.  Author Peter Janney takes on the 1964 murder of Washington DC denizen Mary Pinchot Meyer in Mary’s Mosaic and ties the fatal—and unsolved-- shooting of the well-connected Meyer to the events surrounding the assassination of her lover and confidante JFK. Heavily researched and footnoted, Janney posits that the CIA engineered both deaths because Meyer’s pacifism and use of marijuana and hallucinogens were influencing President Kennedy’s views leading to policy decisions contrary to what the CIA felt best for the nation. Janney implicates CIA officials including his own father, Wistar Janney, and Mary’s former husband Cord Meyer in the tangled web of DC agendas and cover-ups. Reading like a who’s who of the Cold War era, Mary’s Mosaic will appeal to those well-versed in the Warren commission report as well as Kennedy family buffs.  

 

Jack Kennedy and family also make an appearance in Francine Matthew’s novel Jack 1939. Set in the Europe of pre-World War II, Kennedy is anointed a secret agent by President Roosevelt who is bucking for a third term in office; Jack’s mission is to interrupt the German machinations interfering with Roosevelt’s ambitions. Matthews, a former CIA analyst, mixes history with a spy thriller in this fascinating and fast-moving story of what-if conjecture.

 

Lori