Local author and news commentator Michael Olesker knows his Baltimore as well as anyone. For a quarter-century, the former News American and Baltimore Sun columnist has captured the changing pulse of the flawed hometown he loves, illuminating countless important issues along the way. Olesker's latest book, Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age, is a nostalgic-yet-edgy look back at a time of relative innocence for Baltimore and the country. Join him as he discusses this latest work on Tuesday, August 5 at 7 p.m. at the North Point Branch. The program, the third in the “Dundalk Dialogs” author speaker series, will include a book talk, signing and light refreshments. Recently, the author answered questions for Between the Covers about his new book.
Between the Covers: You have been a longtime chronicler of Baltimore’s history. How did you come up with the idea for this book?
Michael Olesker: I’ve always felt that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was a real dividing line in American politics and culture, as well as the real dividing line between the 1950s and ’60s. We recall the ’50s as an innocent time. We recall the ’60s as a time of social chaos: assassinations, wars, riots, terrific upheaval, some good, some bad, much of it quite difficult. But a lot of the ’60s changes were bubbling just beneath the surface in the ’50s. Several years ago, with the 50th anniversary of the assassination approaching, it occurred to me that quite a few Baltimoreans had a profound effect on the nation’s history, and they’d come of age here in the ’50s. Having grown up here in that era, I’ve always felt a real connection to that time.
BTC: You tell the stories of many of Charm City’s personalities, including Nancy Pelosi, Thurgood Marshall and Barry Levinson, coming of age before the complicated 1960s changed the way people looked at themselves and their country. Why were these stories important to share?
MO: As a product of the Baltimore City public school system, I always felt we were taught the Great Man theory of history. That is, presidents and prime ministers and kings change the world. But I think a lot of great change comes from the ground up. Nancy Pelosi’s father was mayor, but her mother ran an army of political women in a time when women were still political non-entities. That was a profound lesson. Thurgood Marshall was the product of a segregated school system and couldn’t get into the University of Maryland Law School because of his skin color. That was a profound motivator as he went on to change the nation’s schools. Barry Levinson was a kid soaking up movie and TV culture and knew that it didn’t reflect the world as he knew it. That was a great motivator for him.
BTC: What made you begin and end with the Kennedy assassination?
MO: My previous book, The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the Fifties, was a 50th anniversary look back at the legendary 1958 Colts who won pro football’s “greatest game ever played.” The response to it was so overwhelmingly heartfelt that the Hopkins Press folks suggested the 50th anniversary of Dallas was another real emotional hook for many people. I wanted to profile not only those people who went on to change the country but the Baltimore of that era — the working class town, the sixth biggest city in the country, the city of neighborhoods and people sitting on front stoops to catch up on the world — but a town on the verge of so many profound changes.
BTC: Why did you decide to write in the present tense?
MO: In my mind, the past never entirely goes away — it still flutters around us, still moves the world in ways we don’t always notice. I felt, from the very first sentence I wrote, that the ’50s were still alive and that, by writing in the present tense, I’d give my narrative a greater sense of immediacy.
BTC: You write that, for newspapers, the Kennedy assassination signaled the “opening moment of long decades of coughing and wheezing their way out of existence.” You have lived through a lot of changes. Where do you see the news gathering business in 10 or 20 years?
MO: We’re currently in a shaking-out period where even the brightest people haven’t figured out where journalism is heading. What’s become clear to me — from years at newspapers, from years on nightly TV news and from years teaching at one of our local colleges — is that a lot of people don’t have the attention span they once had, nor the patience for long-form reading. They want instant gratification, easily digestible bites of information, and then they move on to the next amusement. Millions of us now live moment-to-moment lifestyles but don’t know the history of the last 10 minutes, much less 10 years. I hope my book is a chance for people to see, in an entertaining way, how we began to get where we are.
BTC: Do you think there is any charm left in Charm City?
MO: Absolutely. I think the city’s best years are still ahead of it. Are we losing some of our inimitable “Bawlamer” uniqueness? Sure. But change is always inevitable. What’s shocked all of us is the speed of all this change.
Marina Keegan was an aspiring essayist, playwright and author of short fiction whose talents were burgeoning before she was killed in a car crash in 2012. She was most renowned for her essay “The Opposite of Loneliness,” which was featured in Yale’s 2012 commencement activities. Through the efforts of her family and friends, Keegan’s works have been assembled as a book, also titled The Opposite of Loneliness, a collection which deserves as much celebration as Keegan herself.
Keegan’s fiction is grounded and believable, populated with disarming characters yearning to divulge their intimacies to readers. In “Cold Pastoral,” a girl laments the death of a boyfriend she only recently began dating, and is racked with guilt as she witnesses his ex suffering more than she is. “Challenger Deep,” which portrays a small crew trapped in an unpowered submarine stuck at the bottom of an oceanic trench, is Keegan’s most unsettling, imaginative and beautiful tale.
Keegan’s essays gleam with scholarly poise as she acknowledges the complexities of approaching adulthood with a teenage candor. “Against the Grain” is a reflection on growing up with Celiac’s disease, and the embarrassing safety extremes her mother went to out of love. “Song for the Special” is a gentle reminder of humanity’s diminutive existence in the vast universe we inhabit.
What makes The Opposite of Loneliness so wondrous is not its posthumous publication; each piece is brimming with a nearly unattainable blend of worldly presence and youthful hyperbole. It’s so depressing that Keegan’s talents were stifled at such a young age. This collection resonates in reverie of the marvels that would have been.
On July 26, the Romance Writers of America (RWA) closed their annual conference with a gala event where they honored writers among their ranks for their outstanding work. The RITA Awards are given for distinction in romance fiction.
The Best First Book RITA went to Laura Drake, who gave up her job as a corporate CFO to pursue a career in writing. Her journey to success wasn’t an easy one. It took her 15 years to sell a book, so receiving the award and a hug from none other than Nora Roberts made the victory even sweeter. Her novel The Sweet Spot is the story of a couple coming back together after their life and marriage are torn apart by tragedy.
Sarah MacLean won her second RITA award for her Rules of Scoundrels series. This year, she won the coveted trophy for No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, which I wrote about on Between the Covers earlier this year. The winner in the Paranormal Romance category is Susanna Kearsley for The Firebird. Kearsley skillfully blends history, the paranormal and romance in this novel. Nicola, a woman who secretly has the ability to read past events by touching artifacts, finds herself on a journey through Russia to prove the authenticity of a small wooden bird called the Firebird.
We’ve made this list of these winners and many more, so you can read the best romances of the year!
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, the moment that set the history of the rest of the 20th century in motion. Believed at first to be a war that would take weeks or months to settle, the war dragged on for four long, tragic years until the armistice was signed in 1918. Many new titles have been written that bring a better understanding of this period and the catastrophe of the war.
R.G. Grant’s World War I: the Definitive Visual History, from Sarajevo to Versailles is a terrific introduction to many facets of the conflict. DK Publishing, partnering with the Smithsonian, brings manageable text and countless period photographs here to best explain the personalities, weapons and cultural artifacts of the time period. In The Long Shadow: The Legacy of the Great War in the Twentieth Century, David Reynolds discusses the ramifications of the war, and rethinks some of the theses that have become too-easy explanations for its causes and results. He also looks at its decades-long impact on the art and literary world and how it brought about Modernism. Howard Blum’s Dark Invasion: 1915: Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Tale in America is a fascinating tale of espionage and intrigue is. New York City and other American cities were targeted by German spies to discourage munitions and other supplies from going across the Atlantic to the Allied forces, long before United States troops became officially embroiled in the conflict itself.
Novels set in the time period are perennially popular, such as the Maisie Dobbs mysteries. Now, that series’ author, Jacqueline Winspear, returns with the elegiac and stunning The Care and Management of Lies. Two very different young women come together in the backdrop of the war that has taken away the men in their lives. And Max Brooks’ graphic novel The Harlem Hellfighters is fiction rooted in the heroic tales of the famous African-American 369th Infantry Regiment who fought for France due to antiquated, racially-motivated rules within the American Expeditionary Forces.
Retired NYPD homicide detective Dave Gurney was the most successful and highly dedicated officer on the force. After 25 years of chasing the Big Apple’s worst criminals, Dave and his wife retired to an idyllic farm in upstate New York. But Dave’s highly analytical, restlessly roving brain can’t stop working puzzles. Despite the marital discord it causes, Dave is once again drawn down to the world of absolute evil.
Gunned down at his mother’s funeral, gubernatorial hopeful Carl Spalter leaves behind a host of people who would gladly see him dead. But it is Mrs. Spalter who is quickly tried, found guilty and sent to prison. Approached by the defense team to break the prosecution’s case and win a new trial, Gurney discovers a crooked cop, a seductive enchantress, a cordial mobster and a peculiar hit man who, because of his appearance, has been dubbed Peter Pan. Not satisfied to simply prove that Mrs. Spalter could not have committed the crime, Gurney won’t stop pulling the string until the entire torturous plot has unraveled, revealing an evil plan more shocking than even the most hardened cop can imagine.
Filled with twists and turns, Peter Pan Must Die by John Verdon takes readers on a journey through the minds of the characters and the cold logic of Gurney’s analytical genius. In the end, Gurney discovers not only the shocking truth of the murder, but a few startling truths about himself.
Readers who love Jane Casey, Tana French and John Sandford will find this author’s work deeply satisfying. Original, insightful and thoughtful, John Verdon supplies a truly satisfying read.
Two books cordially invite readers to the wild and wonderful world of weddings. Bestselling novelist Mary Kay Andrews and debut memoirist Jen Doll offer different takes on nuptials in each of their new books titled Save the Date. Andrews shares a behind-the-scene look from the florist’s perspective, while Doll explores what she’s learned about life as a frequent guest. Both are stories of young women trying to figure out this love and marriage thing in an ever-changing world.
In Andrews’ version, Cara is recently divorced from a philandering husband and has renounced love. But it’s hard to escape as she builds her reputation as one of Savannah’s top wedding florists. She has snared the wedding of the year and, if successful, her career will be cemented, she will be able to pay off her loan to her father and her business will be in the black. But when the bride disappears, Cara’s future looks bleak. Cara pursues the runaway bride and, along the way, is forced to come to grips with her real feelings about love – especially in light of the persistent attentions of sexy, charming Jack Finnerty. Readers will be rooting for the immensely likeable Cara as she chases a bride and finds her dreams.
Doll, an unmarried journalist, has attended dozens of weddings, and each has impacted her in some fashion. From courthouse to destination, with few guests or hundreds, Doll has seen a variety of ceremonies and has a takeaway from each. The entertaining reception stories include confronting an old nemesis and drunkenly melting down. Doll explores the institution of marriage and expresses the normal anxieties of a single person whose friends are tying the knot. It’s also an interesting glimpse at the evolving relationships of a singleton with couples over time. Doll’s exploration of marriage allows her to shed light on society’s changing perceptions of marriage and her own possibility of walking down the aisle.
Ever find yourself in an ordinary day and yet you feel an unnerving disconnect with others for no obvious reason? David Guterson’s Problems with People: Stories is a collage of individuals who find themselves in such unhinging, if oddly indistinguishable, moments. Reading these 10 tales will make you feel like you are observing a stranger walking into a cold drift of social ineptitude. In “Paradise,” a divorcee, unsure of the future, finds himself in the passenger seat of a Honda Element driven by a silver-haired beauty he met via match.com. A well-meaning man, along with his unshakable cancer-ridden sister, is locked inside a game reserve in South Africa in “Pilanesberg.”
Each story unapologetically illuminates the oscillating and retracting nature of boundaries. These unpredictable lines, which divide cultures and perspectives, often inflict devastating detachment through innocent dealings. In “Krassavitseh,” questions of race and history are raised as a man takes his inquisitive elderly father on a Jewish Tour of Berlin. A benign American in Nepal encounters Maoists blocking roads and an intelligent child with impeccable shoe-cleaning skills in “Politics.” In the poignant story “Hush,” dog walker Vivian Lee finds an unlikely friendship with a stubborn client and his Rottweiler named Bill.
Don’t look for coddling or satisfaction in this collection. The inability to fulfill emotional obligations radiates off the pages. Guterson’s direct prose evokes the feelings of isolation and displacement in contemporary life, but still leaves a faint trace of hope.
The Shetland archipelago in North East Scotland becomes a hotbed of murder in Dead Water by Ann Cleeves. Jerry Markham returns to his hometown to investigate the potential plan to bring green living to the area through tidal energy and windmills. Not everyone in Shetland supports this plan, and soon Jerry is found dead. Inspector Jimmy Perez is still reeling from the murder of his fiancée, so the free-spirited vegan Detective Inspector Willow Reeves is brought in to supervise the investigation. Soon the body of another man is discovered, and answers are not forthcoming. Jimmy may have to put his mourning aside and help Willow solve this baffling case.
Ann Cleeves is a prolific writer, and two of her series have been turned into successful televised programs on the BBC. Dead Water is written in a traditional style and is a solid police procedural complete with red herrings and enough suspects to keep the reader guessing. The chilly, overcast Shetland area provides a great atmosphere for a mystery, and the remote area ensures that the detectives will need to work with brain power rather than with expensive lab equipment or forensics. Jimmy Perez and Sandy Wilson are great recurring characters from the Shetland Island Mysteries series that readers will love to see again. Willow Reeves makes a nice addition to the series and hopefully will return to Shetland again.
The audio edition is read by Kenny Blyth, and readers looking for an authentic Scottish accent to carry them through this novel need look no further. New readers to the series may want to start with the first novel, Raven Black. If you enjoy Ann Cleeves be sure to try another Scottish favorite, Ian Rankin!
Earlier this year, Between the Covers blogger Jeanne told our readers about Archetype, a debut novel by Maryland author M.D. Waters. In that novel, Emma wakes with no memory of her past. She begins to have flashes of memory and soon realizes that neither her doctor nor her loving husband Declan are exactly who they seem to be. She fights to learn the truth, and what she finds is truly shocking.
Prototype is the exciting conclusion to Emma’s story. The novel picks up one year after the end of Archetype. Emma now knows what happened to her, and she finds herself on the run from Declan. If she wants to survive, she must trust Noah, the man who she used to believe was the love of her life, and members of a resistance group that she used to help lead. The action ramps up in Prototype as Emma claims her true identity. This book is a genre-bending hybrid of science fiction, romance, action and psychological suspense.
Waters recently answered some questions for Between the Covers readers. Learn more about this talented writer, what she’s working on now and the music that influenced Emma’s story.
Between the Covers: What inspired you to write Emma’s story?
M.D. Waters: Growing up, my dad was a huge influence on me when it came to what the future could hold. I always had these things in the back of my mind: a planet-wide overpopulation, technology to control what type of child you bring into the world and that Mother Nature will always make it right. So when Emma woke me in the middle of the night, telling me she lived in a world where women were a rare commodity… Well, I immediately thought of all these things my dad believed possible.
BTC: Equality and legal rights, which differ wildly between men and women as well as clones and humans, are an important issue in both books. Have you had much feedback from readers about those issues?
MW: I have, yes, and everyone takes away very different things. Lots of positive thought provoking, but also some negatives, which surprises me. Lots of assumptions on my “plan,” which doesn’t exist. I see those issues as very normal and very possible, and didn’t even think about the actual rights issues it addressed when I wrote the books. We already live in a world where equality is a matter of perspective, and many of us are blind to the truth. Will it always be that way? I don’t know. I’d love to think we’re progressing to complete equality, but we’re human and subject to nature and/or nurture.
BTC: You share a lot of music on your blog. If Emma had a theme song, what would it be?
MW: “Lost in Paradise” by Evanescence. I swear there was a point when I listened to it on repeat for days. But I’d also choose “Tear the World Down” by We Are the Fallen. I felt a lot of Emma’s strength in Prototype in that one.
BTC: The books are a great blend of action, science fiction, romance and suspense. Let’s pretend that you just got the call that Archetype and Prototype are being made into a movie, and you have free rein with the casting. Tell us about your dream cast.
MW: Jennifer Lawrence, Stephen Amell (Declan) and Charlie Hunnam (Noah). (Triple crosses fingers!)
BTC: Will you tell us a little bit about your writing process? Where do you write? Do you write every day? Who is your first reader?
MW: My process is crazy. I go in these really long spurts of sleeplessness and coffee hazes. Then I binge watch television for days after because I broke my brain. I have a “library” in my house with my books and desktop, but I move around to different areas with my laptop too. Change of scenery always helps. My first readers? Charissa Weaks and Jodi Henry. I have a handful of people who read for me, but these two are always there to read short paragraphs to entire chapters on a whim. I couldn’t do this without them.
BTC: What can readers expect from you next?
MW: More of the same. I’m working on a spinoff of Archetype and Prototype, but also a Young Adult sci-fi [novel] that’s set in a world with its own set of issues.
BTC: As a reader, what book are you most excited to get your hands on right now?
MW: How much time do we have? Currently, I’m ready to get my hands on The Infinite Sea by Rick Yancey. His writing really shook loose the voice in the Young Adult [novel] I’m working on, plus The 5th Wave was seriously kick-ass. So, um, gimme.
In Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee by Michael Korda, the reader learns a lot about Lee’s life and the events that would lead to him becoming the leader of the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Born into Virginia aristocracy that included direct links to George Washington, Lee was destined for a distinguished life from birth. Still, Lee had some major obstacles on his path to military fame, including a less than idyllic family life. His father, ‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee, fought alongside Washington in the American Revolution, but sank into a life of dissipation fueled by alcohol. Eventually, he abandoned the family. Thanks to his mother’s guiding determination, young Robert was able to succeed both scholastically and socially, and achieved prominent positions in both the United States and Confederate States armies.
Lee attended West Point and graduated second in his class without ever receiving a single demerit – not an easy feat in those days when moral rectitude and scholastic discipline were equally valued. As Korda notes, Lee held himself to a very strict code of moral conduct, perhaps due in part to his father’s poor example. Yet, Lee did not exactly impose his strictness to either his family or the soldiers he led. Although he could be a disciplinarian, he preferred to lead by example. He felt that his subordinates should know instinctively the correct choices. According to Korda, Lee’s inability to effectively communicate his wishes to his troops was a major factor in determining the outcome of the Civil War.
Whether you view Lee as a hero, villain or somewhere in between, Korda does offer some interesting perspectives on a very complicated man. While Clouds of Glory may not change your mind about Robert E. Lee, it does illustrate what a complex and sometimes contradictory character he was.