Book lovers: Are you up for a challenge? Book clubs: Want topics for which books to discuss next? Baltimore County Public Library and WBAL-TV 11 have just the thing for you — the 2017 Baltimore County Public Library Reading Challenge.
The challenge, which is a yearlong list of topics from which readers choose a book to read each month, is designed as a fun way for our customers to explore a variety of genres and encourage a lifelong love of reading. It includes a variety of themes that range from important (February’s “Read a book honoring Black History Month”), nostalgic (June’s “Re-read a book from your childhood”), fun (July’s “Read a book you faked reading in high school"), provocative (September’s “Read a book that was banned at some point") and more.
Participants are encouraged to take a photograph of themselves holding the book (or just the book for those who are camera-shy) they’ve chosen for a particular month along with the hashtag #Bwellread on Instagram, Facebook and/or Twitter. Two photographs will be randomly chosen on the last business day of each month and winners will receive $25 Amazon gift cards.
I have always fancied myself a baker, so I couldn’t wait to dig my teeth into Anne Byrn’s American Cake: From Colonial Gingerbread to Classic Layer, the Stories and Recipes Behind More Than 125 of Our Best-loved Cakes from Past to Present. In her latest, Byrn, the best-selling author of Cake Mix Doctor (which has one of my favorite, go to cake recipes — Chocolate Kahlua Cake), not only gives you delicious recipes, but the history behind some of your favorite cakes as well.
The book starts with baking in America in the mid-1600s and continues through the present. Home bakers did not always have modern day appliances, but they still baked wonderful cakes. There were times when some of the ingredients were scarce and people had to improvise, which, according to Byrn, is the mark of a good baker. We learn that early cake baking was done by the wealthy because the ingredients were expensive. Each recipe comes with a brief history. Maryland’s own Smith Island Cake has an entry. There were “war cakes” and “Depression cakes,” which were made without eggs, sugar or butter due to unavailability or rationing. Post-World War II, fictional character Betty Crocker had a large influence on women with her cake mixes and cookbooks.
American Cake tells the story of our nation’s history through my favorite treat, cake. Don’t worry, you don’t have to cook over an open fire — Byrn has updated the recipes for our modern bakers. Many of these recipes will be in my baking rotation. Happy baking and more importantly, happy eating.
When you think celebrity memoir, a series of letters dedicated to various men isn’t necessarily what comes to mind first. But Mary-Louise Parker’s Dear Mr. You is more than that. Using letter writing as a vehicle, Parker explores her relationships with the men she has met, may meet or never got a chance to meet, and by doing so revels in the way her relationships shape her life.
While her letters are candid, ranging from the erotic to the brutally honest, Parker doesn’t indulge in any kind of exposé or scandal; in fact she rarely names the addressees by their full names, so anyone looking for scandalous celebrity gossip may be a bit disappointed in that regard. Instead, what Parker creates is a poetic addition to the memoir genre. She tells her life story by reflecting on the lives and experiences of others, from the grandfather she never knew to a cab driver she would never meet again. While not all memories of the men who have come and gone from her life are pleasant, Parker embraces the good and the bad — the impersonal stranger, the demanding mentor, the intimate lover — and thanks each for the mark they have left on her life.
Lyrical and poignant, Dear Mr. You is many things in one slim volume. It’s a contemplation of the impact men have on their relationships, and a reminder that even trifling interactions between two people can leave a lasting impression. Ultimately, it is an epistolary reflection on how a life is shaped by people — living, dead or imagined. Reminiscent of Joan Didion’s works, Dear Mr. You is a celebration of a life through the lens of relationships from the trivial to the significant.
It is a truth in America today that a single woman in possession of good fortune (or little or no fortune) may not be in want of a husband. According to data taken in 2012 from the Pew Research Center, 17 percent of women aged 25 or older have never been married, and the age when women do get married rose from 20 in 1960 to 27 in 2012. Why are so many women waiting to get married, if they even marry at all? The rallying cry of many magazine articles and talk show hosts seems to be: “What’s wrong with these women?”
According to Rebecca Traister’s book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, absolutely nothing is wrong. Traister doesn’t condemn women for remaining single or for marrying; passing a value judgment on a woman’s life is not what this book is about. Instead, she objectively considers the reasons why women make the choices they do, and examines the societal implications of these choices.
Traister examines the way single women now — the never-want-to-be married, the divorced, the widowed and those considering marrying later — interact with the world around them within the context of the centuries that women were restricted to the roles of housewives and mothers to the exclusion of all else. She reviews the economic and social trends as they’ve rapidly changed over the past couple of decades, culminating in women today having more freedom to live their lives as they wish. According to Traister, the way women exercise these freedoms is changing America’s political, social and economic landscape in ways our social and political structures aren't currently prepared to support.
Traister balances the political and socio-economic discourse with her interviews with single women of different ages and backgrounds. These interviews provide real-life examples proving that broadly classifying the single woman experience into one category is an exercise in folly. Not all single women share the same experience — for instance, the experiences of a single white female, in the past and today, are very different from a single woman of color, and the interviews illuminate this in a very real way.
Traister writes with clarity and comprehension, which makes All the Single Ladies an accessible and thought-provoking read perfect for anyone — married or single — looking to better understand the shifting paradigms and needs of our society. Fans of the book may also wish to read Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed for another perspective on the role of women in America.
From its curious inception as an emulation of American postwar Ivy League attire to its evolution into countless worldwide labels, Japanese menswear has pioneered the world’s most popular looks of leisure. W. David Marx’s Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style is a fantastic look at the history of men’s fashion in Japan.
According to Marx, the concept of fashion was never prevalent in male life in Japan before World War II. Caring about one’s appearance was viewed as effeminate; instead, men dressed in functional, traditional raiment. After the bombs fell and the war ended, many people were forced to make their own clothes out of leftover military surplus like parachutes and fatigues. It wasn’t until the imminent arrival of the 1964 Olympics that men began to ponder their looks and shirked survivor chic.
Marx traces the origins of some of Japan’s earliest men’s fashions back to a couple of standout individuals who would all live on to create, control and influence the country’s leisure fashion industry throughout the second half of the 20th century. It began with the “ivy” look, Japan’s best attempt at manufacturing clothing reflective of what students at northeast American colleges were wearing. In the late 1960s, Ivy relaxed into the “heavy duty” look, which brought denim jeans to Japan and elevated American outfitter companies like L.L. Bean to cult status. Fueled by a bubble in the economy, fashion hotspot Harajuku popped up overnight and exploded into Japan’s most frenetic fashion district, housing imports and original brands men couldn’t buy quickly enough.
Over time, Japan’s fashion endeavors evolved from emulation into innovation, leading to greater exports and global brand presences. The story is incredibly interesting, and Marx’s research and presentation are as impeccable as his style. Readers who enjoy microhistories or are into lifestyle reading will find Ametora to be irresistible.
Video gaming is one of the most rapidly growing and ever evolving hobbies of the 21st century. The gaming industry grosses more money each year than the movie and music industries combined. With figures like this, it’s no surprise that a gaming counterculture has arisen, eager to create and share games that shun traditional styles in favor of a more indie appeal. In The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture, notable game designers, players and critics sound off their opinions on the current trends and directions of both the AAA and indie game movements.
One of the topics most frequently discussed in The State of Play is the concept of player identity. Evan Narcisse’s “The Natural,” Hussein Ibrahim’s “What It Feels Like to Play the Bad Guy,” and Anita Sarkeesian and Katherine Cross’ “Your Humanity Is in Another Castle” all make great arguments for more diversity in every aspect of the characters players control and interact with.
Zoe Quinn, creator of the notable indie game Depression Quest, details her harrowing experiences developing, launching and living through her game and gives readers a glimpse into what it was like to come under fire during the infamous #Gamergate movement of late 2014. Merritt Kopas’ essay “Ludus Interruptus” makes a great argument for much more open-minded views of sexuality and acts of sex in Western gaming. Despite making massive strides in both technical and creative compositions in the past few years, video games have still remained very old-fashioned when it comes to sex and how it’s initiated, portrayed and perceived in media.
Readers who identify as gamers or are interested in the increasingly complex culture of video games should read The State of Play. Games are currently one of the most powerful creative mediums for expression, offering users the chance to become fully immersed in their experiences through interaction. The State of Play is a fantastic, unprecedented collection of reflective literature on different experiences from every angle. Every essay is spliced with Internet links and footnotes leading to resources for further exploration, and there is much to be learned.
In 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote an article for The Atlantic entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” addressing some of the challenges remaining from the second-wave feminist movement of the 1970s, particularly those that led to the devaluation of caregivers. In the article, she described how her transition from a career as director of policy planning for the State Department to professorship in the Harvard Law School for the sake of providing better care for her teenage sons was frequently viewed as giving up by her colleagues. Unfinished Business is a continuation of this discussion, allowing Slaughter the chance to address some of the criticism that arose from her original article and further refine her ideas.
Slaughter points out how necessary and valuable the work of caregivers is but how little respect and compensation they are likely to receive in exchange. While she primarily writes from her own experience in white collar labor, she tries to be as inclusive as possible, incorporating the responses to her article she received from people of different classes, industries, sexual orientations and race. She also makes a point of examining how trends have changed between the baby boomer, Gen-X and millennial generations. While she does not hide her own party affiliations, she shows how concern over caregiving transcends party disputes.
Her arguments are well researched and persuasive, and her suggestions for change are timely and practical. Employers are encouraged to fully utilize the flexibility now allowed by technology to accommodate the scheduling needs of their workers who are caregivers. The time people spend attending events in their children’s lives, supporting their aging parents and being present in communities outside of the office develop the soft skills highly prized in the modern business arena. For true gender equality to be achieved, there needs to be a destigmatization of men’s work in the home, allowing for men to care for their children without being emasculated, manage a household on their own terms and define how they provide for their family outside of the rigid constraints as a “breadwinner.” Anyone trying to juggle a career and family will want to check out this book for its empathy and encouragement.
Witches of America is in some ways the antithesis to other spiritual narratives that have been popular recently, such as Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman, which focus on practitioners reinventing themselves outside of their respective religions. It is author Alex Mar’s narrative as she investigates Pagan worship in contemporary American society, first as a documentarian for her film American Mystic, which profiles different practitioners of alternative religions, and then as an initiate into the Feri, a self-described “sex cult,” struggling against her inherent skepticism and upbringing as an atheist to experience transcendence for herself.
While Mar has a down-to-earth attitude in the face of mysticism that many readers will relate to, she is also honest about her biases and attempts to approach the weird without judgment. In spite of the sensationalism the subject matter inherently conjures up, her exploration reveals how practicing Pagans are seeking answers to questions all spiritual people ask, including what it means to have a higher calling and what actions it takes to live a “good” life. As an investigator, Mar comes across as a sympathetic interlocutor, actively trying to immerse herself in a society that is extremely conscious of its outsider status and protective of what that status entails. As she puts it, “Groucho Marx would have understood the witches: their clubs do not necessarily want you as a member.” The results of her mining are revealed in her personal development and include several thoughtful observations regarding skepticism and faith.
Can’t get enough of the beach? Bring the sand and surf home with three new books dedicated to embracing this casual lifestyle.
Coastal Living Beach House Happy: The Joy of Living by the Water by Antonia Van der Meer offers a glimpse into how to incorporate the ease of beach living into readers’ own homes. The Coastal Living editor revisits 21 homes previously featured in the magazine which she felt were imbued with a happy energy. With almost 200 color photographs and interiors ranging from country to modern, there is something which will appeal to every connoisseur of the seaside way of life. Renowned designer Jonathan Adler wrote the forward and exclaimed, "This beautiful book is my new happy place. Dive in!"
The Nautical Home: Coastline-Inspired Ideas to Decorate with Seaside Spirit by interior designer Anna Ornberg is bursting with ideas for bringing the quiet beauty of beach living to your home. Follow her advice and any space can be turned into a beautiful nautical nest. Projects include wooden lampshades, placemats, beanbags and pillowcases. This title has something for everyone and will inspire those at home reinventing single rooms or tackling bigger projects to create their very own oasis of calm.
Nautical Chic by Amber Butchart shares the impact seafaring style continues to have in the world of high fashion. This historical survey of nautical panache is a beautifully photographed testament to the iconic looks and perpetual popularity. Each chapter traces a current nautical trend and include, “The Officer” which focuses on the epaulettes, brass buttons and braiding which became Balmain and Givency staples and “The Fisherman” with its look at the classic blue-and-white Breton stripes which were favorites of Chanel and Audrey Hepburn. This lavishly photographed and comprehensive book concludes with “The Pirate” and its homage to Captain Hook, Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen.
We have become a food-obsessed society, and no wonder. Besides providing necessary sustenance, the right meal has the power to transform, transport, unite, comfort and even show love. Three new memoirs center on very different culinary experiences. In Fed, White, and Blue: Finding America with My Fork, British expat Simon Majumdar ventures near and far from his adopted hometown of Los Angeles to find out more about Americans through food.
Majumdar, a food writer and frequent face on the Food Network, uses his impending naturalization as the impetus to embark on an authentically American culinary tour. Each chapter of his book describes a different food-related experience, from fishing in New Jersey to making cheese in Wisconsin. As the husband of a Filipino wife and a transplant himself, he is quick to point out the influences of immigrants on our national table. He cooks traditional Filipino fare under the tutelage of AJ, the head chef at Salo-Salo Grill in West Covina, California; and “tours Mexico” by eating his way through an array of diverse food stands in South Los Angeles. Majumdar is an affable host, and readers will enjoy his journalistic efforts, which are liberally dosed with historical facts to provide background. Fed, White, and Blue is an enjoyable, distracting read.
Graham Holliday looks back to his experiences working and eating in Vietnam in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Eating Việt Nam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table. British-born Holliday travelled to the country to teach English, eventually becoming a journalist. It doesn’t take him long to realize that some of the most delicious, authentic, vibrant food to be had was found off the path beaten by tourists. The term “adventurous eater” doesn’t even begin to describe Holliday, as he takes on all manner of offal from stalls, restaurants and makeshift kitchens that know nothing about health code. He enters the world of blogging with noodlepie, a blog dedicated to the street food of Saigon. From duck fetus eggs to the more approachable banh mi and pho, Holliday’s prose celebrates the country’s distinctive dishes in a way that will make you eager to seek out a stateside Vietnamese restaurant.
Writer Sasha Martin is well known for Global Table Adventure, a blog dedicated to virtual travel around the world. Martin spent four years cooking and sharing approachable recipes from 195 countries in her Tulsa, Oklahoma, kitchen. When she began writing a book intended to chronicle that undertaking, Martin found herself on a journey of introspection that resulted in Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family and Forgiveness. Hers was far from an idyllic childhood, raised in poverty in working-class Boston by a single mother who struggled in myriad ways to take care of herself as much as her children. When her mother failed, she did so dramatically — leading to visits from social services and ultimately the decision to put her children in the hands of family friends in order to give them what she thought would be a better life. The thread that runs through the poignant, heartrending story of Martin’s early life is the anchoring, inspiring power of food — learned from her erratic, mercurial mother — and eventually passed on to her own family.