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Maycomb Revisited

Cover art for The Mockingbird Next DoorFormer Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills says she never expected to befriend Harper Lee, much less write a biography-memoir about her 18-month sojourn to Monroeville, Alabama, that included living next door to the reclusive author. But 15 years after Mills' first visit, her highly discussable new book, The Mockingbird Next Door, has ridden the literary wave for its jolt of homey, if not mundane, rituals of Lee's daily life. If a peek behind the curtain is what you are seeking, Mills does not disappoint. The comings and goings of the Lee sisters (Alice is older) are affectionately detailed, leading to the inevitable question as to why Harper Lee would allow herself to be portrayed so simply and unguarded after years of shying away from publicity.
 

For Mills, this assignment was intriguing for its possibilities, and an opportunity to prove she could still do her job despite a diagnosis of lupus. In 2001, she travels to Lee's hometown to speak to folks who knew the then 75-year-old Harper Lee (Nelle to friends) and to get a feel for Monroeville, the setting for Lee's fictional Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird, the instant classic about the 1930s South. With a reporter's eye for opportunity, Mills meets and impresses Alice, smoothing the way for a meeting with the famous Harper Lee, whose only book won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize and was the subject of an Oscar-winning film. When Harper Lee called the reporter's hotel room, Mills recalled, "It was as if I had answered the phone and heard, 'Hello. This is the Wizard of Oz.' I felt my adrenaline spike."
 

Mills injects a strong sense of place in her conversational writing, along with plenty of quaint colloquialisms. There are towns like Burnt Corn and Scratch Ankle, and fishing trips and coffee-sipping at McDonald's. She captures the Mayberry-like tone of Lee's voice with her frequent "bless her heart," "mercy" and "thanks a bunch, hon." Mills tenderly skims over rumored aspects of Lee's life, dealing with sexual orientation and drinking, although her exploration of Lee's intriguing relationship with childhood friend, Truman Capote, is one of the more interesting chapters.
 

Knowing Harper Lee's penchant for privacy, it is probably not surprising that Mills' book has come under scrutiny. The author has insisted she had Lee's blessing for the project. Harper Lee's released statement denies the 88-year-old ever gave approval; Alice recalled otherwise. Such matters won't deter readers who will relish this intimate look inside the seemingly uncomplicated life of one of the most complicated and beloved literary figures of the 20th century.

Cynthia

 
 

Funny Girls

Funny Girls

posted by:
September 9, 2014 - 7:00am

Cover art for Normally. This Would Be Cause for ConcernCover art for Not That Kind of GirlGet ready to laugh out loud as two young actresses share glimpses into their personal and professional lives. Danielle Fishel — remember Topanga Lawrence from the 90s sitcom Boy Meets World? — and Lena Dunham, creator and star of HBO’s Girls bare it all in poignant memoirs.
 

Fishel’s Normally, This Would Be Cause for Concern is more than just a tell-all, although fans will enjoy learning of her celebrity dating roster which included Lance Bass and Ben Savage. She also shares her undying love for Jared Leto, who rescued her from the L.A. freeway following an accident. Fishel, who is reprising her role of Topanga in the new Disney show Girl Meets World, is as entertaining and appealing on the page as on the small screen. Storytelling comes naturally, and she has plenty of juicy gems for readers involving awful auditions, red carpet faux pas and dating disasters. But behind the stories, she shares her neuroses and faults making this a refreshing Hollywood memoir.
 

In Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, the actress reveals personal struggles which aren’t far removed from the character she plays on TV. Both deal with OCD, therapists and awkward dating experiences. Dunham excels at documenting her coming of age and her professional experiences in a male dominated industry. She tackles big issues with hilarity and honesty in this series of essays, sure to appeal to fans of David Sedaris and Nora Ephron. Dunham has said of this book, “I’m already predicting my future shame at thinking I had anything to offer you with this book, but also my future glory in having stopped you from trying an expensive juice cleanse or having the kind of sexual encounter where you keep your sneakers on. But I am a girl with a keen interest in having it all, and what follows are hopeful dispatches from the frontlines of that struggle.”

Maureen

 
 

Only 10 Percent?

10 Percent HappierIn some circumstances, 10 percent may seem insignificant. A $50 item listed at 10 percent off, in reality, only saves you $5. Yet Dan Harris, in his book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story, demonstrates that his 10 percent increase in the happiness department really has made a significant difference. Harris is the co-anchor of ABC’s Nightline. His years of covering international combat, followed by hard recreational drug use, culminated in an on-air panic attack about 10 years ago. Realizing that his greatest battle was with the “voice in his head,” Harris researched non-traditional remedies which led to Buddhist meditation and mindfulness development as a way to improve health and his outlook on life.

 

Described as a book written for, and by, “someone who would otherwise never read a spiritual book,” 10% Happier provides plenty of practical, authoritative information about meditation and its benefits, as well as Harris’ own journey to master his internal struggles. His time at a meditation retreat is especially telling of his progression and introspection. Along the way, readers learn about his career, his encounters with famous figures like the now-notorious Ted Haggard and James Arthur Ray, and his time with news legends like Peter Jennings. Some of the laugh-out-loud moments include his research into famous gurus like Eckhart Tolle, as well as his memories of yoga class as a child.

 

I recently read The Last Best Cure, and much of Harris’s research and experiences affirm the lessons in that book: There are scientifically founded ways to “green” your mind and repair your brain’s damaged pathways. Hilarious and well-written, this book steers clear of being a hokey, clichéd self-help guide. I especially recommend the audio version, which Harris narrates.

Melanie

 
 

A Complicated Man

Cover art for Clouds of GloryIn 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.
 

Regina

 
 

From Novel to TV

Fresh Off the BoatComing soon to the ABC network is a memoir turned television series, Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang. In his memoir, Huang describes how his immigrant family moves from D.C. to Florida so that his father can open his own restaurant. Huang goes on to describe what life was like growing up as a Taiwanese-Chinese-American, not just in the United States, but also in a community with little diversity.

 

The audiobook for this memoir is narrated by Eddie Huang, which gives the reader a greater understanding of his perspective. His direct manner of detailing his eclectic array of experiences is uncensored and sincere. Culture is a prevalent theme throughout the book and food is frequently a platform for Huang to discuss the topic.

 

After listening to the audiobook, I will be interested to see how Huang’s book translates into an ABC series that appears to be quite comical. While the book isn’t without humor, it seems to focus more on challenging what are considered to be cultural norms and showing the impact that assimilation can have on a boy and his family as a whole. If you find yourself a fan of Huang’s style, checkout his video series on vice.com.

Randalee

 
 

Life Lessons Du Jour

Cover art for Over EasyMimi Pond is an artist and illustrator, whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Seventeen and on the animated series, The Simpsons. In her new graphic novel biography, Over Easy, Pond revisits a unique time and place: the late 1970s in Northern California. During this time of transition, the beat and hippie cultures were fighting a rear-guard action to stay culturally relevant; punk was new on the scene and grabbing everyone by the throat, lyrically and sometimes literally; and disco was just starting to die a slow overly choreographed and elaborately coiffed death. Pond abruptly finds herself tossed out of art school in her final year when her financial aid runs dry. Sitting in the Imperial Café, a popular local diner and one of her favorite places to sketch, she takes a chance and asks the diner’s manager and comical free-spirit, Lazlo, for a job. He hands her an application and tells her to only write one thing: the funniest joke she can think of. Pond lands the gig and finds herself in the exalted position of dishwasher. The work is hard, long, and brutal, but it clearly gives Pond the perfect vantage point to observe the hothouse environment of the diner. From the sexual roulette and rabid drug use that seems to be her co-workers' chief occupations to the dreams and ambitions that each holds dear, Pond sees all. Seizing an unexpected opportunity, Pond graduates to waitress and takes the chance to reinvent herself personally, and finally finds acceptance as a member of the diner’s family.

 

Pond’s illustrations are cool and clear, the slight cartoonish-ness of them playing well against the serious themes. The monochromatic colors speak to the nature of the transitions happening in this period with the promise of color reserved for a world not yet born. The illustrations resemble a series of sketches done mid-shift on the back of napkins and menus, stolen moments of observation while clearing a four top. The unconventional tale moves at a staccato pace like a free-styling beat poet at open mic night. It is a story that stops but doesn’t really end; perhaps a hint of more to come? You will find yourself wondering what will become of this child of hippies on the cusp of the Reagan-era love of materialism and excess. Will she stay true to herself while navigating the changing times? Perhaps it isn’t too much to ask that Pond grace us with further unique volumes of her work and share her incredible talent as a storyteller.

 

For a Mature Audience due to themes of sex and drug use.
 

Brian

 
 

Outshining the Stars

I Don't Know What You Know Me From: Confessions of a Co-StarYou know who Judy Greer is, even if you don’t know who Judy Greer is. You may know her from her role as Cheryl in Archer, or as Kitty Sanchez in Arrested Development, or as the best friend in movies like 13 Going on 30 and 27 Dresses. You may even know her as the mom from the new “Framily Plan” commercials from Sprint. The point is, with dozens of co-starring roles in TV series and major movies, you know who Judy Greer is, even if you can’t pick her out of a lineup. This famous anonymity suits the actress just fine as she makes clear in her hilarious new biography I Don’t Know What You Know Me From: Confessions of a Co-Star.

 

Hailing from outside of Detroit, Ms. Greer has the work ethic of a dray horse and the sense of humor bred from the privations of the rust belt and ungodly cold winters. Her childhood, while not a large chunk of her new memoir, provides some of the funniest fodder. Like her fellow Midwesterner from across the lake, Tim Conway, Ms. Greer is more than willing to embarrass herself and expose her own foibles to make us laugh. The end result is a book that is funny and endearing. You are happy for her success and for her excitement at meeting real celebrities. Whether she is discussing spending her summers in the quaint town of Carey, Ohio, or peeing next to her far more famous co-stars, which occupies a chapter of her book, Greer has an enthusiasm for life and a wide-eyed zeal that will leave you smiling as if you were watching a basket full of puppies frolic.

 

In one of her best quotes, Ms. Greer notes that a family member once told her that “Work begets more work,” and in pursuit of that ideal she has relentlessly pursued roles that weren’t starring roles, but roles that would keep her working. Along the way, several of her characters have become comedy cultural touchstones. If you like Bossypants or Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, you will love I Don’t Know What You Know Me From. While her career so far has been one as a co-star, something she doesn’t mind at all, you finish this book hoping she will get her chance to find that starring role and join the ranks of actresses like Tina Fey, Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett.

Brian

 
 

The Litchfield Ladies’ Book Club

Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Woman's PrisonOrange Is the New Black Season OneOrange Is the New Black is back! The second season of the popular series starring Taylor Schilling, Jason Biggs and Laura Prepon was released a few weeks ago exclusively on Netflix. The first season’s dramatic ending left fans on the edge of their seats, and the second season brings us right back to the drama at the fictional Litchfield Correctional Facility.

 

The show is based on Piper Kerman’s bestselling 2010 memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison. When Kerman was sentenced to 15 months in a minimum security federal prison for a crime that she committed 10 years earlier, she entered a world unlike anything she had ever known. Kerman’s memoir takes readers through her entire sentence as she learns to navigate this world with its unique set of rules and social norms. The book is about more than just Kerman’s experiences, though. The reader gets an up-close view of the American correctional system, and we are introduced to her fellow inmates, whose lives and circumstances are very different from her own. Kerman’s memoir is heartbreaking, uproariously funny and sometimes shocking.

 

Reading is a popular way for the Litchfield inmates to pass the time. A lot of scenes take place in the prison library, and the characters are frequently spotted reading or holding books. The books in the background have taken on a life of their own, becoming a popular topic for fan discussions and blogs. Entertainment Weekly’s Stephan Lee breaks down what the characters are reading in the new season episode by episode. (Contains spoilers.) Popular novels like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Ian McEwan’s Atonement are featured alongside classics like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. If you want to read along with the ladies of Litchfield, this list will help you get started.

Beth

 
 

The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree

Cover art for Good Talk, DadBill and Willie Geist have a great deal in common. They are both TV personalities: Bill on CBS News Sunday Morning and Willie on The Today Show. They both have a deep love of sports. They are both raconteurs with a wickedly insightful sense of humor. As a father and son, they have shared, and sometimes not shared, many of life’s milestones, and in Good Talk, Dad we are lucky they have decided to share those milestones with us.

 

The book is designed to feel like an ongoing conversation between a father and son as well as to serve as an oral history for generations of Geists yet unborn. The extremely well done audiobook is especially a treat as both Bill and Willie do the narration. Each section of the book is divided into a topic like sports, parenting or sex. Each Geist weighs in with his thoughts and their shared experience or recollections on the issue, and they take the opportunity to fill each other in on the parts the other might not have known about. The two points of view are clear and unique. Bill is a Midwestern, who served in Vietnam and spent much of his career in print journalism. Willie grew up in New Jersey and had easy access to New York City; he was accomplished in sports and practically fell into a series of jobs in broadcast journalism. These differences play extremely well off one another like discordant syncopation in a jazz number. The feel is like Bill Bryson meets Sh*t My Dad Says. It is funny, real and heartfelt.

 

Good Talk, Dad, above all else, feels genuine. In your mind’s eye, you can see these two men who clearly love and respect each other hunched over a computer rapidly emailing each other back and forth. They share laughter and feelings in a way that men in our society are not often comfortable doing in person. The resulting image is of a family where laughter is more common than anger, where people like and support each other, and where they are just plain comfortable around each other. It might just leave you a little bit jealous that you have not experienced life as a Geist.

Brian

 
 

A Chicken in the Garden

Mister Owita's Guide to GardeningListen to the Squawking ChickenTwo memoirs hit the library shelves recently. One is tender, the other brash, but each author writes with much love. Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart by Virginia author Carol Wall is a poignant account of her friendship with Giles Owita, a Kenyan immigrant. Celebrity gossip blogger Elaine Lui writes about her Chinese mother in the blunt and brassy Listen to the Squawking Chicken: When a Mother Knows Best, What’s a Daughter to Do?  A Memoir (Sort Of).

 

Carol Wall looks at her Roanoke neighbors’ verdant gardens and lawns and knows her shabby yard needs help. Wall hires a friend’s gardener, Mr. Owita, and hands him a list of her gardening desires which Owita politely ignores. Wall and Owita cross racial and cultural boundaries as their relationship morphs from one of employer and gardener to student and teacher and eventually, dear friends. Wall is frank about her emotional struggles as a breast cancer survivor, and the support provided by Owita as both a gardening mentor and fellow traveler becomes increasingly important to her. Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening is a lovely and spiritual homage to Giles Owita, whose guidance and example allow Wall to see the beauty in life despite its fleeting nature.

 

Elaine Lui opens Listen to the Squawking Chicken with a description of her petite mother as a “China Woman Elvis” dressed in a rhinestone-studded, denim popped-collar pantsuit, massive visor and sunglasses. Ma’s Cantonese nickname is Tsiahng Gai, meaning Squawking Chicken, and when she speaks, her daughter compares her voice to a siren.  Ma is loud, pushy and controlling, and embraces the use of guilt and threats as parenting tools. Lui ‘s recollections often portray her mother as harsh and judgmental, holding cruel court in her mahjong rooms, but a different picture emerges as Lui shares stories of the atrocious deprivation and brutality of Ma’s childhood. Ma’s methods may be unorthodox, but Lui recognizes her mothering is done out of love and the desire to protect her daughter from the horrors which shaped her. Lui talks about her book and posted an absolutely adorable picture of Ma on her website.

Lori