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Paula Gallagher

Paula Gallagher reads widely across many genres, including literary fiction, children’s picture books, graphic novels and narrative nonfiction of all kinds. She is a pop culture aficionado, a theatre buff and an accomplished amateur cook. You can count on her to hand you a compelling read at the Pikesville Branch. Paula is the book reviewer for The Baltimore Sun podcast "Roughly Speaking," hosted by noted columnist Dan Rodricks.

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Paula

The Girls

posted by: June 28, 2016 - 9:00am

Cover art for The GirlsEvie Boyd is that lady — the one who was a member of the hippie cult that committed those horrific murders. Acquired as part of a three book deal for a rumored two million dollars, Emma Cline’s hotly anticipated debut, The Girls, focuses on a 14-year-old drawn into a charismatic cult. It’s no secret that the fictional leader of the group, Russell, is a stand-in for the notorious Charles Manson.

 

The novel begins as current day Evie looks back on that transformative summer of 1969. Cline shines at illuminating the dark, sullen corners of the adolescent experience and, in her hands, readers have no doubt as to why plain, ordinary Evie eagerly follows the enigmatic young women she first spies at the park. She wants to be noticed, to belong, to be rescued from boredom.

 

The girls from the park are titillating in their openness. Evie is invited to the solstice celebration at their dilapidated ranch in the hills, a party with a banquet culled from a back alley dumpster and plenty of drugs and drink. Suzanne lends her a flowing dress, reeking of rodent droppings, from a community clothing rack. And when Russell finally appears, beaming and barefoot in filthy jeans and buckskin, Evie struggles to see to see the brilliance they all assure is behind the intensity of his stare. Later that night, she’s presented to him as an offering. Russell specializes in sad girls like Evie, willing to do anything for attention.

 

Soon she’s a part of the group, stealing from her mother’s purse to make offerings, frequently staying the night and hanging out with the famous musician who is sure to help make Russell a household name. She flits between home and the ranch, and all the while her distracted mother thinks she’s at a girlfriend’s house. The sadder and wiser adult Evie’s observations about her younger self make the reader ache. Lucky for Evie, she never gets pulled all the way in, and when Russell’s demands become increasingly dangerous, she’s left out. The Girls is as much a coming of age story as it is a sordid, cautionary tale and a study in cult psychology. Cline’s descriptive writing propels the story, and many of her observations beg to be read aloud. As a high concept literary page turner, The Girls delivers.

 


 
 

The View from the Cheap Seats

posted by: June 17, 2016 - 6:00am

Cover art for View from the Cheap SeatsWhile author Neil Gaiman might be best known as a fantasy novelist, he’s better described as a kind of writer-of-all-trades. His acclaimed Sandman series was one of the first graphic novels to make the New York Times best-seller list and he has published numerous children’s works to critical accolades. He’s a master of the short story. But his latest published work, The View from the Cheap Seats, is a collection of the prolific, versatile writer’s nonfiction pieces.

 

Gaiman is an unabashedly public figure who remains accessible to his many fans through his online journal and presence on social media. And while his built-in audience will be clamoring for this volume, it has much to recommend for those who have never read his nonfiction. The View features five dozen articles, speeches, introductions and essays on topics that are interesting and in some way important to the author.

 

He admits on his online journal: “It's a relief that it's published: I don't think I've ever been as nervous about a book coming out as I have been about this one. You can hide behind fiction. You can't hide behind things that are about what you think and believe.”
These thoughtful, insightful pieces are gathered under 10 categorized chapters, including “Some People I Have Known,” “On Comics and the People Who Make Them,” and of course, “Some Things I Believe.” Included here is his acceptance speech from the 2009 Newbery Awards, where he won the highest prize in children’s literature for The Graveyard Book, his Sunday New York Times piece “On Stephen King,” his introduction to the reissue of the final book in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series and the in-memoriam essay he wrote describing Lou Reed’s songs as the soundtrack to his life.

 

The View would make an excellent gift book, as it’s the kind of collection you can pick up whether you have 10 minutes to devote to reading or a whole hour. You can always count on him to entertain, but here he manages to be thought provoking and incisive as well. Gaiman is the erudite friend you’d want at your dinner party, always ready to start the conversation.

 

As a librarian, I must admit that my favorite piece in the collection is a lecture entitled “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a better advocate for public libraries than Neil Gaiman. This essay alone will inspire you to visit the library to find out for yourself just what keeps us relevant.


 
 

Sweetbitter

posted by: June 10, 2016 - 6:00am

Cover art for SweetbitterStephanie Danler’s impressive debut Sweetbitter is that rare literary novel that’s a perfect poolside read. It’s the sticky summer of 2006, and 22-year-old Tess has $166 to her name and the promise of a room to rent in pre-gentrification Brooklyn. Naïve ambition and a need to pay the bills lead her to apply for a job at what her roommate tells her is the best restaurant in New York. Despite her lack of fine dining experience (she has a stint as a barista under her belt) and her utter ignorance when it comes to wine, the restaurant manager sees something in this bright young English major. As a back-waiter, she’ll ferry bottles from the wine cellar, deliver plates to the tables, prepare coffee drinks and support the servers.

 

Danler immerses Tess (and the reader) in the culture of fine dining, a world in which her coworkers are emotionally and intellectually invested. Everyone has a story, and most never expected they’d stay in the job as long as they have. She’s tutored by career server Simone, smart and driven with a personal life rife with secrets. Tess is immediately drawn to Jake, the enigmatic bartender with impossibly pale blue eyes and bad-boy charisma. But just what is Simone’s connection to Jake? The interpersonal politics at the restaurant are far more complicated than Tess realizes. Long hours at the restaurant are fueled by a passion for excellence, sexual tension and drugs, which stave off exhaustion. The staff works hard, and parties harder. As the story progresses, Tess gains confidence as an integral part of the restaurant team, even as she makes questionable relationship choices.

 

Readers will revel in the culinary details, from the hearty fare served at preservice family meal to the plates inspired by the seasonal ingredients collected at the Union Square Farmers Market. Tess expands her palate with the delight of a child and the seriousness of a scholar, savoring creamy, briny raw oysters even as she learns to identify myriad varieties by sight. She finds a personal preference for a rare, authentic dry sherry.

 

Sweetbitter is smart, compelling and compulsively readable. Danler’s characters are memorable and her writing cinematic, with the restaurant, food, wine and New York City itself in supporting roles. Danler’s debut is a succulent coming-of-age novel rich with descriptive prose and plot. Expect to be consumed by Sweetbitter from its opening pages.


 
 

The Books That Changed My Life

posted by: April 26, 2016 - 7:00am

The Books That Changed My LifeAsk anyone the question “What is your favorite book?” and you have the beginning of an interesting conversation. But twist that question just a bit, and you get a glimpse into that person’s psyche. Editor Bethanne Patrick does just that in the essay collection The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People. She surveyed a broad range of interesting people, imploring them to share the titles that affected their existence in an important way.

 

From the poignant to the profound, these two to three page contemplations are fascinating; and just reading them makes you feel an immediate connection to that person. Singer-songwriter Roseanne Cash, daughter of Johnny, names Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder as her life-changing book. Ma and Pa Ingalls demonstrated the day-to-day routines of a loving, dependable family, making Little House a comfortable reprieve for the modern-day Cash, raised in a spotlight of fame, instability and chaos.

 

R.L. Stine, known for the popular Goosebumps series of scary novels for kids, reminds us that the original Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi was the stuff of childhood nightmares and not the charming Disneyfied version. Many of the other essayists also chose a book from their childhood, including such classics as Grimm’s Fairy Tales (Margaret Atwood), The Little Prince (Jacob Hemphill) and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Vu Tran).

 

Others name coming-of-age adult fiction they read as teens, from Gone with the Wind (Jodi Picoult), to The Bell Jar (Meg Wolitzer). Science fiction writer John Scalzi was a precocious reader who discovered The People’s Almanac when he was just 6. The book ignited his love for trivia and curating facts of all kinds, whether or not he understood them.

 

The Washington Post BookWorld editor Ron Charles’ choice, Straight Man by Richard Russo, was a literal life changer. Then a prep school English teacher, Charles picked up the novel from a table of newly published fiction at a local bookstore and decided to write a review, his first ever. He submitted it to The Christian Science Monitor, with more critiques to follow. He ultimately gave up teaching to become their full time reviewer, ultimately landing at The Washington Post. Charles says that newspaper readers “overwhelmingly prefer to read positive reviews...Of course, they want to know which books they should read instead of books they should not read — because they’re not going to read most books anyhow.” Consider this an overwhelmingly positive review of The Books That Changed My Life. What book changed yours?


 
 

The Sting of the Wild

posted by: April 26, 2016 - 7:00am

The Sting of the WildEntomologist Justin O. Schmidt shares his lifelong passion for pain-inducing insects in The Sting of the Wild, recently published by Johns Hopkins Press. According to Schmidt, despite a universal, innate fear of stinging insects, only about 50 people a year die from the combined sting of all stinging insects, including wasps, honey bees and fire ants. The first half of this surprisingly entertaining book provides scientific theory and background, while the second gives in-depth looks at particular groups of insects. Schmidt encourages readers to skip around as they read; each chapter can be read as a stand-alone essay.

 

As a piece of anatomy, the stinger itself evolved from the ovipositor, or egg-laying tube, of the sawfly. Its ingenious three-part design — two sliding channels inside a third immobile tube — allow a tiny insect to impart a wallop of pain to its much larger victim. The addition of venomous fluid provides an additional layer of defense for most species, although sometimes that venom is used for capturing prey. If you understand that the stinger was once an egg-laying tube, you’ll know why only female insects sting. But Schmidt is quick to point out that while male bees and wasps lack stingers, they feature hardened genitalia which they use to “pseudo-sting” would-be threats.

 

Schmidt has a particular passion for harvester ants, and lucky for him his wife is also a zoologist who helps to collect them by the bucket load so they can study their venom. You really don’t want to be stung by a harvester ant. There are five things that make harvester stings unique: 1) delayed reaction to the sting, 2) sweating around the sting site, 3) hairs in the sting area stand up, 4) the lymph nodes nearest your sting become hard and tender and 5) the pain is excruciating, coming in waves that can last from four to 12 hours.

 

One of the most enjoyable features of the book is the inclusion of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, developed by the author himself. Schmidt allowed himself to be stung by 78 species of hymenoptera so that he could record the nature of the pain and rate it on a scale of zero to four. Don’t let anyone tell you that entomologists don’t have a sense of humor. The sting of the club-horned wasp, for example, is described as a .5 — “Disappointing. A paperclip falls on your bare foot.” While the warrior wasp rates a 4 for a sting that is “Torture. You are chained in the flow of an active volcano.” Readers who share my fascination with the natural world, and particularly those who revel in unusual animal facts, will love The Sting of the Wild.


 
 

Alligator Candy

posted by: April 15, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Alligator CandyDavid Kushner’s early childhood was near idyllic. Born in 1968 to observant Jewish parents with liberal ideals, Kushner and his two older brothers Jon and Andy had license to roam free in their Tampa suburb. Days were filled with bike rides, games and exploration of the natural world that surrounded both their home and school. But one October afternoon, Jon took a solo ride to the 7-Eleven to buy Snappy Gator Gum for David and himself. He never returned. Alligator Candy: A Memoir is the story of the tragedy that affected not only the Kushner family, but the entire community.

 

David, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, a journalism professor at Princeton and an author of several nonfiction titles, tells this deeply personal story with candor and generosity. What does he remember about the last time he saw his brother alive, and can he trust that memory? Would Jon be alive today if almost-5-year-old David hadn’t asked for that gum? The rest of his life from that point forward, was marked by having a brother who had been abducted and murdered. Childhood was no longer safe; his bogeyman was real. Actually, he had two bogeymen — the men who had confessed to treating his brother in a way that was far worse than anything he’d heard from his old edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

 

How does a family move on? Kushner credits his parents for allowing him and his older brother the freedom to move beyond the fear, to continue to have as normal a childhood as possible. He acknowledges his Jewish faith, but most importantly the community that came forward to support his family from the moment Jon went missing. As he got older, he knew his memories of his brother’s murder were incomplete, and much of what he thought he knew was based on a combination of overheard conversations, conjecture and rumors. And although he craved answers to what was a mystery to him, he didn’t want to subject his parents to painful recollections.

 

At 13, he went to the library to request microfilm of The Tampa Tribune from October 1973. What he read satisfied his need for more information, but also led to further questions. One fact remained: He was becoming a man, a bar mitzvah, while Jon would forever remain a boy. Kushner talks about other famous cases involving missing and brutalized children, explaining how laws have come into being as a result. An existing legal loophole allowed for a parole hearing for one of Jon’s killers, compelling David and Andy to testify. The thought of this man possibly getting out into the world was stupefying. The family found justice and some solace in knowing the mastermind of the crime had been executed under the death penalty.

 

Alligator Candy is a memoir that marks a lifetime of remembering, searching and gathering. The processing will always continue. Kushner's evocative prose took me back to my own early '70s childhood, with just the right period details and nostalgia. Despite its difficult topic, Alligator Candy is compulsively readable and highly recommended.


 
 

A Doubter’s Almanac

posted by: April 1, 2016 - 7:00am

A Doubter's AlmanacA Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin audaciously challenges readers from the very beginning. Protagonist Milo Andret is a mathematical genius, a young man with an uncanny sense of direction and intrinsic awareness of geographical place. He visualizes complex problems and, to him, obvious solutions. His adult life becomes absorbed by the complex world of academic mathematical theory, in particular, topology.

 

What is topology, you might ask? And why would you spend your time on a novel that spans decades and devotes over 500 pages to a literary novel that seemingly centers on math? Credit the supple talent of novelist Canin for crafting a rich, relatable saga with universal themes of self-discovery, fulfillment, love, loss and the importance of family.

 

Although his path seemed obvious, Milo was never a good student, as he was prone to boredom. Five years after completing his undergraduate degree (he spent the interim working as an auto mechanic), he applies to graduate school at UC Berkeley. A latecomer to the field, it’s not long before Milo discovers the theorem that will define his career, the elusive young woman who will slip through his grasp and haunt him for the rest of his life, and the poet/mathematician who not only becomes his nemesis but represents the path not taken.

 

But like the real life mathematician John Nash, portrayed in the book and movie A Beautiful Mind, Milo’s brilliance comes at a price. His brain never quiets, and he lacks the coping mechanisms to relax and simply be happy — he’s constantly striving. He loves the company of women, but lacks interpersonal skills that allow for connection beyond the bedroom. Self-medication helps; Maker’s Mark bourbon bottles literally pile up. Milo reaches the zenith of his professional life early and manages to make a number of enemies along the way. He marries to escape, and his career falters as his frustration mounts.

 

Canin makes a smart choice by giving the narration to Milo’s son. Hans is brilliant in his own way but damaged by a childhood dominated by a mercurial, distant father and a loving, devoted yet unfulfilled mother. His sister, also a prodigy, is scarred by their father’s failure to recognize her. Hans makes a fortune by using his own mathematical skills in the financial markets. Wildly successful, he also self-medicates from his time as a young teen — first with the recreational drug MDA, later with cocaine. Hans and his wife keep their own children far from their grandfather.

 

Canin is a master storyteller, creating interesting, flawed characters that struggle to feel comfortable in their own skin; characters that long to connect in meaningful ways and leave their mark on the world. A Doubter’s Almanac draws you deeply into the lives of the Andrets in ways that stay with you long after you’ve finished this smart, intensely moving novel. This is literary fiction at its best, challenging and rewarding. A Doubter’s Almanac is the best novel I’ve read this year, deserving of the many accolades that are sure to come its way.


 
 

Hair

posted by: April 1, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for HairHair: A Human History proves the rule that even the most mundane topics become fascinating in the hands of an author who is passionate about their subject matter. A former professor of pathology and dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine and a once-director of skin biology at Johnson & Johnson, Kurt Stenn has particular expertise as a follicle man. His enthusiasm for the subject matter translates to the page in this engaging microhistory.

 

Hair offers what the author refers to as a “panoramic view” of the natural fiber, including whiskers, pubic hair and mammalian fur. Stenn provides readers with a modicum of simple science and lots of cocktail party-worthy facts and anecdotes worth sharing. He begins with a description of the follicle growth cycle, spending time on causes of extreme hair loss and explaining male pattern baldness. Hair follicles don’t disappear; they become smaller and smaller until they’re microscopic. Who knew that bald men really do have hair?

 

The author shares the reason that Abraham Lincoln grew his famous beard, and explores how tonsorial choices reflected both beauty and power throughout history. Did you know that the iconic barber pole is a vestige of the time before the 18th century when barbers performed bloodletting? Barbers of the time doubled as surgeons, since hair and body care were seen as one and the same.

 

Hair touches on the history of hair styling, chemical processing and even hair removal. Stenn takes a look at depictions of hair in art, and at artists that make a statement by including actual human hair in their work. He points out the sentimental and spiritual value of a lock of hair, and describes the once-common custom of wearing jewelry made from a deceased loved one’s hair — a memento mori. Dozens of illustrations add to the book’s appeal. At just 169 pages (plus a glossary and extensive notes), Hair is a fascinating, worthwhile read.


 
 

Reasons to Stay Alive

posted by: March 18, 2016 - 6:00am

Cover art for Reasons to Stay AliveMemoirs are a popular form of bibliotherapy, not only for the authors who find therapy in sharing their thoughts and words, but also for the readers who are lucky enough to come across the right one at just the right time. This is the case for Reasons to Stay Alive, a kind of hybrid self-help/memoir by British novelist Matt Haig. Even if you’ve never experienced clinical depression, it’s certain that someone in your life is struggling with it right now.

 

Haig’s warm confessional tone and conversational prose makes this an easy book to pick up, despite its heavy subject matter. The author recalls a moment at age 24 when a thought led to a strange, tingling sensation in his head that was followed by an immediate, suffocating state of depression — anxiety and anguish so horrific that the only way he felt he could deal with it was to end his life. Haig lays out what it’s like to fight battle upon battle in your own mind, barely making it from one day to the next. He also shares the things that saved him, his own “reasons to stay alive,” which included his family and the dedicated girlfriend who eventually became his wife. Haig allows that while he has come a long way from this lowest point, he hasn’t completely gotten over depression, and never will. He shares his coping mechanisms, but is forthright in telling readers that depression is not the same for everyone, as minds are unique.

 

He informs readers that depression is one of the most deadly diseases on the planet, and that suicide accounts for over one in every hundred fatalities in the U.S. and the U.K. He speaks from personal experience when he says that, despite this statistic, “people still don’t think that depression really is that bad.” This accounts for various unhelpful directives he’s been given along the way, like “Chin up!” and “Mind over matter!”. These fall under a chapter entitled “Things people say to depressives that they don’t say in other life-threatening situations.”

 

Reasons to Stay Alive takes on its delicate subject matter with heart and humor, giving readers a sure-fire gambit for starting conversations about what it means to battle depression. Matt Haig’s honesty and candor are a welcome gift.

 


 
 

The Vegetarian

posted by: March 11, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for The VegetarianSouth Korea is claiming a seat at the world’s literary table with the February release of female novelist Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated by Londoner Deborah Smith. The novel was originally published in 2007 in South Korea as three separate novellas. The Vegetarian unites these related stories, which all center around Yeong-hye, a young woman described by those close to her as plain and unremarkable. That is, until she becomes tormented by recurring dreams of unspeakable horrors — dreams she associates with eating meat.

 

Her husband, the narrator of the first part of the novel, is alarmed when he finds her frantically throwing away the animal contents of their refrigerator. He immediately reminds her of the monetary costs, to no avail. Yeong-hye not only avoids all animal products but eats little at all and begins to rapidly lose weight. Her health declines but the dreams continue. Others scoff at her newfound vegan diet, while her blustering, domineering father decides to force-feed her during a family dinner to disastrous, far-reaching results.

 

The second part of the novel takes us forward in time, and this time the narrator is the husband of Yeong-hye’s sister, who is a successful and driven businesswoman and mother. The brother-in-law is an artist who has yet to find an audience for his work. He is obsessed with Yeong-hye, determined to use her as the centerpiece of an artistic, sexually graphic film conceived with her in mind. This middle portion of The Vegetarian takes the quiet yet alarmingly dark tone of the beginning and adds a brooding, hypnotic eroticism. What is it about Yeong-hye that bewitches him and causes him to risk everything? Is he driven by art, or merely lust?

 

The final part of The Vegetarian is told by the sister, whose life has been upended by both Yeong-hye’s actions and her stubborn convictions. Yeong-hye’s mental health is rapidly declining, or so it seems. Is there something much bigger lurking beneath her usual, seemingly placid exterior? Her rejection of the human world takes her to a startling place.

 

The Vegetarian is calm, cool, unflinchingly dark and unsettling. Readers looking for an intellectual and philosophical challenge will enjoy working out the rich symbolism for themselves, making this an excellent choice for book clubs with a literary bent.


 
 

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