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Spiritual, But Not Religious

Christianity After ReligionBaltimore-born Diana Butler Bass has written extensively about the state of matters of faith in America over the past thirty years. Now, in Christianity after Religion: the End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, she argues that we are once again in a spiritual upheaval in the United States. This, she posits, is yet another in the line of spiritual “awakenings” that has gripped people of faith during times of change, such as today - the early 21st century.

 

Bass discusses some of the religious changes that have taken hold in the United States: the falling away of many from the faiths of their parents and ancestors; the loss of membership among large Christian denominations, such as Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant groups; and the current rise in self-made spirituality. A surprising piece of information is how megachurches, which grew out of the most recent spiritual awakening of the 1970s, have largely plateaued in popularity over the past decade. Testimonies, analyzed polls, and quotes from religious scholars and leaders comparing the beliefs of Americans over the decades are interspersed throughout, lending considerable validity to her arguments.

 

The current awakening the author describes is the way in which Christianity is evolving beyond traditional religious structures. Our global connectedness and increased access to communication has allowed individuals to choose spiritual elements from many religious backgrounds, such as prayer, yoga, meditation, and joyful traditions to create their own connection with a higher power. These faiths are also instilled with valuable information coming from the secular world, such as environmental and social considerations. This is a provocative and eye-opening work from one of today’s top religion writers.

Todd

 
 

May Lead to Whiplash

May Lead to Whiplash

posted by:
May 11, 2012 - 3:01am

Defending JacobDefending Jacob by William Landay should come with the warning label, “May lead to whiplash.” With Landay at the wheel, readers of this terrific new legal thriller should prepare for breathtaking turns and shocking twists. In less sure hands, a story with this many surprises could easily fall apart. Landay is a master storyteller and is able to balance all of the twists while maintaining taut, suspenseful pacing.

 

It would be a shame to reveal too much of the story. The bare bones: Andy Barber is a successful, respected prosecuting attorney. He lives with his wife and son in an affluent Boston suburb. A 14-year-old boy is discovered in a local park; he has been fatally stabbed. Andy takes on the case, only to be blindsided when his son, Jacob is accused of the murder. Landay has an uncanny ability to elicit empathy for Andy and his family. The Barbers could easily be people we know. They could be our neighbors. They could be us.

 

Defending Jacob is not Landay’s first book but it is his first major blockbuster title, landing on many bestseller lists. Landay’s other titles include The Strangler and Mission Flats, which won the Dagger Award for best debut crime novel. Before trying his hand at writing novels, Landay was a district attorney. His legal experience shows in Defending Jacob. He portrays legal maneuvers and courtroom scenes like only an insider could.

 

Beyond its strength as a legal thriller, Defending Jacob is also a deeply touching portrait of parenting, married life and unconditional love. Landay forces us to consider how we might react if we were faced the truly unspeakable. Try the audiobook version, a truly excellent narration performed by Grover Gardner.

Zeke

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The Dance of the Two Sisters

The Dance of the Two Sisters

posted by:
May 11, 2012 - 1:01am

The Cranes DanceCranes really do dance.  But instead of the bird kingdom, The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey explores the world of professional ballet and the relationship between Kate and Gwen Crane, two dancers who are also sisters.  They have always had a “professional” rivalry – Kate more lively and dramatic, Gwen stronger on technique.  When Gwen suffers a nervous breakdown, Kate scrambles to keep her own life on track and also to figure out where her sister’s life derailed.   As the past unfolds, it becomes clear that the sisters’ story is also a “dance”: Kate tried to ignore the signs that all was not well, even as Gwen’s idiosyncrasies became more disturbing. 

 

Why is this book intriguing?  It’s straightforward but well written.  Howrey, herself a professional dancer, adds plenty of details to the practical life situation of a dancer trying to make it to the top in New York City.  Dancers crammed into studio apartments, putting themselves through punishing classes and instructors, constantly scoping out the competition in other students…it’s a tough existence.  Yet even knowing more about the harsh realities of the ballet world and how slight the chance is of having a successful career, for dance lovers it still seems…magical.  There’s still that pull. 

 

Also keeping the reader engaged is Kate’s narrative.  It is at times sarcastic, even abrasive, but also funny.   As an added bonus, several ballet plots are outlined (complete with dry humor) and wrapped into the story.  As the book evolves, Kate comes to her own understanding about the relationship between herself, her sister and her profession.   For fans of the film Black Swan, here’s a story with psychological depth and a slightly more hopeful ending. 

Melanie

 
 

Downton Abbey Addicts Anonymous

To Marry an English LordThw World of Downton AbbeyViewers have flocked to the smash hit BBC television series Downton Abbey  for the past two years, but the wait between seasons is agonizingly long for devoted fans.  The show’s popularity has created a publishing craze to produce more and more titles to help tide Downton Abbey fans over until new episodes arrive.

 

After the New York Times published a list of books for Downton Abbey fans they received a letter from Julian Fellowes, the series creator who is also known for writing the Oscar Award-winning screenplay for Gosford Park.  Fellowes wrote to highlight a title that the New York Times had missed—To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace.  This book follows the lives of several American heiresses who went to England in the late 19th century in hopes of marrying into the aristocracy.  Fellowes says that these stories really made him curious about the women’s lives after their marriages, and that idea inspired him to create the character of Lady Cora Grantham.  The gossip in To Marry an English Lord may be over a century old, but it remains riveting.  Readers will love the illustrations, sidebars, quotes, and photographs that make it an engrossing guide to the time period. 

 

Still looking for more Downton Abbey?  Try The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes, who is the niece of Julian Fellowes.  This official companion offers a behind-the-scenes look at Emmy Award-winning the show, the characters, the cast and crew, and Highclere Castle, which is the location for the show.  This pictorial guide is truly a must-read for Downton Abbey fans.

 

Look for the third season of Downton Abbey to air in the US in January 2013.  The Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith, will have some real competition when Shirley MacLaine joins the cast as Lady Cora’s American mother, Martha Levinson.

Beth

 
 

A Year in the City of Lights

Paris in LoveEloisa James is the pen name for Fordham literature professor Mary Bly. The daughter of the award-winning poet Robert Bly and short story author Carol Bly, James began writing romances because her husband (an Italian knight!) wanted to wait until they were more financially secure to have a second child. Today, she has approximately 3.5 million books in print in 13 different languages and is a frequent inhabitant of the New York Times bestseller list. 

 

James decided to move her family to Paris in 2009, following her mother’s death and her own struggle with breast cancer.  James chronicles this exhilarating year abroad in Paris in Love: A Memoir.The cast includes the aforementioned husband, Alessandro, also a professor and the only one who could speak French. Her children, Anna, 11 and Luca, 15, round out this appealing family. Both were initially less than impressed with French schools and society. For more on this delightful family, take a look at the book's own website.

 

James’ regular enthusiasts will savor this funny slice of life, and new readers will quickly be drawn in to this excellent memoir which is also a look at marriage and family and even includes recipes! Eat, Pray, Love’s Elizabeth Gilbert noted that, “Reading this memoir was like wandering through a Parisian patisserie in a dream. I absolutely loved it.”

 

Readers who appreciate the humorous tone to James’ writing, should definitely try some of her novels which are infused with wit and modern sensibilities. Start with her Happily Ever After series (A Kiss at Midnight, When Beauty Tamed the Beast, and The Duke is Mine), which are retellings of famous fairy tales and can be read in any order. After all, who doesn’t like to read a "Once upon a time" story every now and then? 

Maureen

 
 

A Radical Life

Panther BabyThe new memoir Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention recounts Jamal (Eddie) Joseph’s journey from straight-A student to member of the revolutionary, criminal underground, and finally from convict to the chair of Columbia University's School of the Arts film division.

 

Eddie Joseph was orphaned at a very early age. He was raised in the black ghetto in the Bronx in the 1960s by an elderly black working-class couple, Noonie and Pa Baltimore. Coming of age in a highly charged era, Joseph quickly becomes enamored with the image of the Black Panthers. On seeing Black Panthers for the first time on television he says: “Look at those dudes, I thought. They’re crazy. They got black leather coats and berets, carrying guns, scaring white people, reading communist books. They’re crazy. I immediately wanted to join.”

Upon finally finding the Panthers, he realizes they are different than he had first imagined. They arm him with books, not guns. Very early on, Eddie is rechristened as Unbuntu Usa Jamal, or “he who comes together in the spirit of blackness.” He later learns the meaning is entirely fabricated but decides to keep the name, anyway. Jamal Joseph soon finds his place in the party. The Black Panthers help him figure out his place in the world and give meaning to his life. A gifted public speaker, he quickly becomes one of the youngest spokespeople for the party. He works closely with Afeni Shakur (late rapper Tupac Shakur’s mother) and finds himself giving speeches at college campuses, community centers and cocktail-party fundraisers, rubbing elbows with the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Tom Wolfe.

 

The 1960s become more radical and Joseph becomes more involved in the underground (sometimes criminal) activities of the party. He spends two major stints in jail, once for conspiracy charges and later for attempting to aid underground fugitives, he is sent to Leavenworth Prison for twelve years. It is in the infamous Leavenworth Prison that he rediscovers his love for theater. He eventually earns three degrees while in prison and is now the chair of Columbia University’s School of the Arts film division.

Panther Baby works on multiple levels. It’s a fascinating memoir and coming of age story. Jamal Joseph reflects on his experience as an orphan and as a young black man growing up in the Bronx, trying to figure out who he is and how he fits in to the world around him. The book also succeeds on a broader level. Through Joseph’s individual story, we’re given a deeper understanding of this history of the Black Panthers and an overall picture of what revolutionary politics looked and felt like in the 1960s. Panther Baby is a clear-eyed inspirational story that will appeal to both teen and adult readers.
 

 

Zeke

 
 

Hats off to Magritte

Hats off to Magritte

posted by:
May 9, 2012 - 1:11am

Magritte's Marvelous HatYou don’t have to be familiar with artist René Magritte’s work to appreciate Magritte’s Marvelous Hat by D.B. Johnson. His homage to Magritte is a wonderful introduction to surreal artwork for the preschool to elementary school set.  In this book, with all canine characters, Magritte is a painter who buys a magical hat that floats just above his head.  The hat stays with Magritte as he heads home and is inspired to paint his best work ever.  He has fun with his hat, playing hide and seek and walking through the park. When he starts painting day and night, the hat feels neglected and runs away. 

 

The story is charming, but it is the illustrations that will wow the reader.  Inspired by Magritte’s surreal paintings, the book is filled with references to his greatest works.  Readers will be tickled to look into the fish market and see an ocean with fish clouds above.  Did you notice that it is raining under the umbrella? Does the reflection in the mirror seem “off”?  Johnson includes four transparent overlay pages that further delight. With its bright, bold illustrations, Magritte’s Marvelous Hat is a visual treat for any age. Take your time, and let your young reader really absorb the artwork.  They’ll have fun picking out what’s wrong(?) and maybe they’ll ask for a book about Magritte's art!

Diane

 
 

Skullbania is Not a City in New Jersey

Fangbone! Third-grade BarbarianFangbone! Third-grade Barbarian: The Egg of MiseryEastwood Elementary has a new third grade student, a young warrior who hails from the faraway land of Skullbania. Clad in raggedy homemade boots, a cape, horned helmet and what the other students interpret as “fur underwear,” Fangbone tumbles though a portal into a garbage dump on the hillside overlooking the school. He’s been entrusted with protecting the big toe of Drool, which will keep evil from his land. But strange new challenges (like the concept of toilets) lie ahead for Fangbone! Third-Grade Barbarian, the engaging hero of Michael Rex’s silly new graphic novel series for elementary school readers.

 

The first book introduces Fangbone as he attempts to assimilate into class 3G. Soon he’s made a new best friend, Bill, while gathering the whole class as his army of minions. His clueless principal thinks it’s all an exercise in appreciating other cultures. Soon Fangbone leads the losing 3G Extreme Attack Unicorns through a victory in the beanball games, and his classmates come through for him when evil strikes from his homeland. Rendered in simple comic book style line drawings, Fangbone! holds special appeal for young boys who appreciate an abundance of goofy, mildly gross humor and plenty of battle action.  

 

The adventures continue in Fangbone! Third-Grade Barbarian: The Egg of Misery, as a strange oversized egg appears, sent from Skullbania by the warrior’s clan. The class works hard to hatch this bizarre, spotted egg, believing it contains a baby dragon. Meanwhile, they must all work together to present their assigned animal, the dodo, for the third grade’s Extinction Pageant. Craziness and danger ensue, as Fangbone wields his sword against Skullbanian evil and the trials of a group project.

 

Known for his popular parodies of classic children’s picture books such as Goodnight Goon and Furious George Goes Bananas, Michael Rex has found a new niche in graphic novels. Young fans of Dav Pilkey’s Ricky Ricotta and Captain Underpants series will quickly devour these adventures. Look for a third Fangbone! title, The Birthday Party of Dread, to debut in August.

Paula G.

 
 

The Pigeon is BACK!

The Pigeon is BACK!

posted by:
May 9, 2012 - 1:11am

The Duckling Gets a Cookie!?Mo Willems delivers his first Pigeon book in four years with The Duckling Gets a Cookie!?, and it’s worth the wait.  When the Duckling asks politely for a cookie and gets one, the Pigeon is SHOCKED! True to form, Pigeon falls into a major tantrum and lists all of the things that have been unfairly denied him: driving the bus, hot-dog parties, a walrus, one more story, and even his own iceberg. The Pigeon's rant is quickly terminated when the Duckling generously offers him the treat.  (In a funny twist, by book’s end, the Duckling’s motives will be revealed to be less than pure.)  As Pigeon moves from apoplectic to apologetic, he is almost speechless.   

 

Simple text within balloons and animated illustrations highlight the story and mark Willems’ popular brand of storytelling. This is a fun read-aloud and an excellent way to introduce topics of manners and politeness. While the Pigeon may not get the point, young readers and listeners will. This is a fabulous and funny addition to the Pigeon stories. The legion of Pigeon fans will be delighted and new fans will be looking to catch up on all of the Pigeon’s previous antics. Be sure to have plenty of cookies on hand for this treat!

 

Willems maintains an active online presence, and www.pigeonpresents.com is a treasure trove for kids and grown-ups with games, teacher’s guides, and event planning ideas.  Also available for ipad and iphone is Don’t Let the Pigeon Run This App. It allows children and adults to participate even more in the Pigeon’s stories, and includes an interactive Mad Lib and a Draw with Mo feature. And the Pigeon tweets!  Become a follower on Twitter @The_Pigeon.

Maureen

 
 

The Wild Rumpus Falls Silent

Where the Wild Things AreLittle Bear AudioBumble-ArdyMaurice Sendak, beloved children’s book author and illustrator, died Tuesday as the result of complications from a recent stroke. A prolific creator of picture books that have become part of the American psyche, Sendak is perhaps most widely remembered for his groundbreaking classic, Where the Wild Things Are, which delved into the imagination of young Max, escaping from punishment in his room to a land populated by monsters who welcome chaos. Sendak was awarded the Caldecott medal in 1964 for this groundbreaking book.

 

His career began as an illustrator of others' work, most notably the Little Bear series by Else Holmelund Minarik. Sendak’s carefully detailed, expressive animal characters are an integral part of the success of those titles, beginning with the original Little Bear in 1957. Still popular with children today, Sendak’s illustrations were brought to life as an animated series.

 

Sendak’s most recent picture book, Bumble-Ardy, was the first both written and illustrated by him since 1981. Bumble-Ardy began life as an original "Sesame Street" animated segment, also by Sendak, centering around a nine year-old pig who had never been given a birthday party. According to the storyteller of the book, “Bumble-Ardy had no party when he turned one (his immediate family frowned on fun).” He decides to make up for this grievous neglect by throwing his own raucous event (which quickly gets out of hand) at his aunt’s house while she’s away. Like most of Sendak’s work, this acknowledges a dark side to childhood.

 

Visit a Baltimore County Public Library branch to explore more of this beloved author’s body of work.

Paula G.