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The Thorn in Your Side

With or Without YouJoan Crawford, move over. Kathi Ruta is here, and her daughter, Domenica “Nikki” Ruta, has penned a memoir every bit as disturbing as Christina Crawford’s. In With or Without You, Ruta recounts a childhood devoid of innocence, as she is both witness to and victim of numerous crimes. Nikki is the only child of single mother Kathi.They live on the Ruta family compound in Massachusetts. Unlike another family compound in wealthy Hyannisport, the clannish Rutas reside on marshland in blue-collar Danvers in dilapidated housing. Kathi is a manicurist, at one point a prosperous car service owner, but most regularly a drug dealer who liberally indulges in her merchandise.

 

Ruta shares horrifying tales of growing up with Kathi. The squalid living conditions are punctuated by a revolving series of drug-buying customers who serve as surrogate family; one “uncle” is a known pedophile. Kathi promotes drug use, providing Nikki with her first Oxycontin and stuffing her Christmas stocking with a nickel bag. She keeps Nikki home from school to watch classic movies on TV (ironically, a favorite was Mommie Dearest) and harangues her daughter with language that could blister paint off the walls. Yet Kathi knows her intelligent, book-loving daughter deserves more and cobbles together a private school education which includes boarding school and college, partly funded by drug money. During an especially flush period, they travel to Europe.

 

Dysfunctional parent-child relationships are complicated.  Ruta conveys her mother not as one-dimensional, but larger than life and complex; intensely loving and capable of pushing her daughter to succeed conventionally while simultaneously sabotaging her efforts. With her mother’s demons dogging her along the way, Ruta struggles to launch her own adulthood while deciding what role her mother can continue to play in her life.  Recent memoirs in this same vein include Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle and The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok.

Lori

 
 

Chinua Achebe, 1930-2013

Things Fall ApartThere Was a CountryHow the Leopard Got His ClawsThe renowned author of African literature, Chinua Achebe, has died in Boston at the age of 82. He is best-known for his seminal 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, read by millions worldwide, and featured in the curriculum and reading lists of countless high schools and universities. This novel follows the life of Okonkwo, a proud Igbo man living in turn of the 19th century Nigeria, and the cultural changes that he must face and accept as British colonialism takes hold of the area and the only life he knows. Achebe also wrote a number of follow-up novels to this groundbreaking story. Confined to a wheelchair for the past twenty years following a car accident, he lived in the United States for the last two decades of his life, and was a professor of African Studies at Brown University in Providence.

 

Achebe also was a strong proponent of the rights of the people living in the once-breakaway Nigerian state of Biafra. His book There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra was published last year. Explaining the Nigerian civil war that took place in the late 1960s, this mélange of memoir and history reminded the world of an oft-forgotten war. Achebe also wrote an allegorical folktale which was republished last year with Mary GrandPré's illustrations. How the Leopard Got His Claws tells the story of a short-lived coup and the resulting return of the original power players, in terms that are understandable for all ages.

Todd

 
 

Walk This Way

Walk This Way

posted by:
March 21, 2013 - 8:01am

Walking BaltimoreThe days are longer, the sun is shining, and flowers are starting to bloom. It’s time to get outside and get moving! Evan Balkan offers a multitude of opportunities for fun and interesting local adventures in Walking Baltimore: an Insider’s Guide to 33 Neighborhoods, Waterfront Districts, and Hidden Treasures in Charm City.

 

The well-known tourist attractions of Fells Point, Mount Vernon, and the Inner Harbor are of course represented, but this local author and CCBC professor also shares hidden gems that are spread across the breadth of the city. It is these lesser known corners of Baltimore which put the charm in Charm City, and these walks allow for a detailed exploration. Each area is presented as a 1 to 4 mile walk, and Balkan includes little-known facts, trivia, and stories about the neighborhood being toured. Forts, The Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, and the Gwynns Falls are among the many sights included on these varied walks, which truly offer something for everyone from history buff, to sports fan, to nature lover. Balkan also offers tips on parking and public transportation, and rates the difficulty level of each walk from easy to strenuous so readers can plan accordingly. Finally, for a more customized look at the walks, Balkan separates them by theme in an appendix. Themes include American Firsts, Writers & Readers, Museum Madness, and Green Spaces.

 

Visitors and newly transplanted residents will appreciate this compact guide as a way to learn more about the city beyond the Inner Harbor. Old-timers will utilize this handy read as a way to rediscover Baltimore’s rich history, beautiful landscapes, and fabulous neighborhoods.  All will enjoy the exercise and savor the sampling of culinary delights to be found on each walk. 

Maureen

 
 

Betcha Can't Eat Just One

Salt Sugar FatFat ChanceIt wasn’t merely a catchy slogan when the Lay’s potato chip commercial challenged you to eat just one. Like the rest of the food industry, Lay’s was banking on the fact that the ingredients in their products would make it difficult for consumers to stop crunching. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss’s new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us will make you think twice before you pick up another cookie or sip another soda.

 

Moss explores how the processed food industry uses key ingredients to make their products more addictive, and the negative impact that those foods have had on our health. The processed foods that we find at our supermarkets are carefully formulated and tested to hit the consumer’s “bliss point,” the precise amount of sugar that will make the product most appealing to the greatest number of people. Through both the ingredients and the companies’ carefully targeted marketing, consumers are manipulated to buy and eat more and more of these products. Moss goes beyond the nutrition of junk food. He also explores the science of food and creates a business history of the food industry. Salt Sugar Fat is an intriguing and sometimes terrifying, look at this one trillion dollar per year industry.

 

Pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig also takes on the food industry in Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. After the US government recommended a low fat diet in the 1970s, the food industry responded by adding sugar to low fat products to make them taste better, which Lustig says has had disastrous results. Lustig, whose 90-minute lecture “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” has been viewed over 3 million times on YouTube, documents the connection between the added sugar in our food and the obesity epidemic.

Beth

 
 

Feed Them on Your Dreams

Far From the TreeFar from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity is Andrew Solomon’s exploration of the infinitely complex relationship between parents and children. He investigates the nature of parenting children who are exceptional in a variety of ways. Solomon interviews families with children who are prodigies, deaf, dwarfs, autistic, schizophrenic or are transgender, for example.  He bookends these stories with his own experience at being both a son and father. There are common themes among parents whose children possess these unique qualities. The individual stories inspire every emotion—heartbreak, grief, anger and joy. Although very challenging, parents maintain their child’s “difference” is a gift. The families often gain incredible strength and resilience.

 

Solomon’s psychiatric and academic backgrounds add depth and context to the exploration of each “condition”. He examines big issues such as identity, culture and “nature vs. nurture.” He provides overall context, history, and the latest research.  Thanks to his engaging storytelling skills, the information is readily accessible and truly fascinating.

 

Solomon is the perfect author for such a book. His previous work, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, was the winner of fourteen different book awards and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He is a Lecturer in Psychiatry at Cornell University and Special Advisor on LGBT Affairs at Yale’s University Department of Psychiatry. He writes with clarity and warmth about extremely complex issues. This book is highly recommended to regular readers of nonfiction, parents, teachers, and anyone hoping to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to parent a child.

Zeke

 
 

Urban Legend

Banksy: The Man Behind the WallThe shroud of secrecy which surrounds an elusive artist is at the heart of Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall by Will Ellsworth-Jones. This former journalist presents an in-depth look at the reclusive artist from his beginnings as a nobody vandal all the way to the Academy Awards as producer of a nominated documentary. As unlikely as it would seem when reading about the beginnings of his journey, Banksy has somehow managed to become one of the world’s best known and wealthiest living artists. His pieces, which once drew anger and police attention, are now securing millions of dollars at auction.  

 

While Banksy, via his publicity organization Pest Control, refused Ellsworth-Jones’ requests for interviews, the author manages to use secondary sources to shed light on this enigma. He talks with friends, acquaintances, and fellow artists to recount how this mystery man from Bristol, England, who refuses to be photographed or reveal his given name, turned the art world on its head. Readers will also meet fans who wait for hours to obtain limited edition prints and follow the author as he searches the streets for some of Banksy’s works. Ellsworth-Jones also addresses the paradox that Banksy’s commercial success has created for him and questions whether he is the sellout as so many of his contemporaries claim. This is a fascinating glimpse inside the world of street and outsider art, a social commentary, and a philosophical debate about the definition of art.

 

Many Americans probably got their first glimpse of Banksy (along with a distorted voice and hidden face) and his world in his 2009 documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop. This intriguing Oscar-nominated film prompted one New York Times critic to coin the term “prankumentary,” leaving viewers wondering whether the entire film is yet another hoax perpetuated by Banksy and his cult of followers. 

Maureen

 
 

Writers Behaving Badly

Writers Behaving Badly

posted by:
March 7, 2013 - 8:01am

Literary RoguesWe often think that modern rock stars and actors have the market cornered when it comes to bad behavior, but the list of authors who achieved notoriety is long and distinguished. Andrew Shaffer reveals their stories in Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors. From the Marquis de Sade to James Frey, Shaffer brings us true stories of the vices, scandals, and exploits of well-known authors from Western literature.

 

At the height of his addiction, Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, took 8,000 drops (80 teaspoons worth!) of laudanum a day. Lord Byron was known to drink wine from his ancestors’ skulls to help ease his depression. He also had a love affair with his half-sister Augusta Leigh. Although she began as a teetotaler, Dorothy Parker eventually became an alcoholic. She smoked three packs of Chesterfield cigarettes a day and used tuberose perfume to mask the smell of the scotch that she habitually drank. When she was warned that her behavior would send her to an early grave, Parker replied, “Promises, promises!” While entertaining friends, Joan Vollmer, common-law wife of William S. Burroughs, challenged him to prove his marksmanship by shooting a highball glass off the top of her head. Both were drunk. Burroughs obliged but missed, killing her instantly. In 1969, Hunter S. Thompson ran for sheriff in Aspen, Colorado, on the Freak Power Party ticket, a high-profile stunt that Thompson hoped would gain attention for his “freak power” message.

 

Shaffer brings us all of the outrageous details and salacious gossip in this compilation of the bad boys and bad girls of literature. Chapters are separated by literary period, and discuss the authors from that era. Readers will be struck by the interconnectedness of these great authors’ lives. Infused with Shaffer’s dark humor, Literary Rogues amuses, saddens, and sometimes shocks.

Beth

 
 

The Baltimore Plot

The Baltimore Plot

posted by:
February 28, 2013 - 8:01am

The Hour of PerilSteven Spielberg’s Academy Award-nominated film Lincoln has created renewed interest in our 16th President, and author Daniel Stashower’s The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln before the Civil War brings to light a little-known episode from Lincoln’s life. In 1861, President-elect Lincoln made the 13-day journey from Illinois to his inauguration in Washington, D.C., by train, stopping to make appearances along the way. The nation was on the brink of civil war, and emotions ran high. Lincoln, a symbol for the Union, was an obvious target. Famed detective Allan Pinkerton was asked to help ensure Lincoln’s safety on the journey. A credible plot to assassinate Lincoln, led by an outspoken Italian barber in Baltimore named Cypriano Ferrandini, came to light. They planned to kill Lincoln when his train made its stop at the Calvert Street Station. As the train drew closer to Baltimore, Pinkerton and several of his agents raced to save Lincoln, and the assassination conspiracy, which is now known as The Baltimore Plot, was foiled.

 

Stashower, who lives in Bethesda, Maryland, skillfully weaves elements of true crime and history together in a story that author Harlan Coben calls “history that reads like a race-against-the-clock thriller.” The political turmoil of that time is palpable, and Stashower makes historical figures come alive in this character-driven story. Readers who enjoy narrative nonfiction like Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America or Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President will want to read The Hour of Peril.

 

Beth

 
 

Stonewall Winners Announced

The Last NudeAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the UniverseFor Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Still Not EnoughThe 2013 Stonewall Book Awards were announced at this year’s American Library Association Midwinter meeting. The Stonewall Book Awards are given each year to exceptional books reflecting the gay, lesbian and transgender experience. Each year a fiction, nonfiction, and children's or young adult title is chosen for the award. Honor books are also chosen in each category. This year’s Barbara Gittings Literature Award went to The Last Nude by Ellis Avery. It tells the story of the passionate, tortured relationship between Tamara de Lempicka and her muse, Rafaela. The Last Nude is highly recommended to anyone who wants to immerse themselves in the Lost Generation of Paris, learn more about twentieth century art or simply wants to read a fascinating, wholly engrossing love story.

 

The Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children's & Young Adult Literature Award went to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Aristotle and Dante, two Mexican-American teens, are trying to figure out where they fit in the universe and how to navigate their ever-evolving friendship. Aristotle and Dante walked away with multiple awards this year. In addition to the Stonewall Award, it was also the winner of the Pura Belpre’ Award, which goes to the work for children and youth that best represents the Latino cultural experience. The book also garnered a Printz honor award, which highlights teen books of excellent literary merit.

 

This year’s Israel Fishman Nonfiction Award was given to For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Still Not Enough: Coming of Age, Coming Out and Coming Home, edited by Keith Boykin. For Colored Boys is a collection of over 40 essays and personal stories from gay and transgender people of color. The collection features essays on coming out in communities of color, religion, HIV/AIDS, family dynamics and finding love. A powerful and diverse collection, For Colored Boys gives voice to life stories that are rarely told.

 

A complete list of The Stonewall Winners and Honor Books can be found on the ALA website.

 

Zeke

 
 

Bellwether for the Union

Rise to GreatnessAbraham Lincoln was an inexperienced president in 1862 when he faced his troubled country's most daunting crises to date. With the new year came the inescapable truth of a nation divided, broken, and at war. To realize his vision for the union would take patience, even-keeled fortitude, and the ability to draw in friend and foe alike. In David Von Drehle's terrific and highly readable book, Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year, the historian reconstructs in a dramatic but disciplined tone the year's greatest challenges for the self-schooled Illinois lawyer. Unfolding month by month, Lincoln's growth as a leader is as transformative for the 16th president as it is for the state and stabilization of the union.

 

There is no doubt that issues were burning for Lincoln and the country. Aside from a civil war and unabated "secession fever,” the president was facing a government overwhelmed, a treasury without money, and a war department reported in shambles. Europe was exhibiting impatient leanings toward the south. At home, Lincoln's domestic situation presented its own challenges and heartache. The moral crisis of slavery, which would eventually catapult Lincoln to greatness, was looming.   

 

Von Drehle's careful chronology of this tumultuous year begins with New Year's Day and concludes a year later with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In captivating narrative guided by hefty research, layers of political, military and diplomatic maneuvering are peeled away as Von Drehle attempts to define the man Lincoln became as a result of the year's high stakes. Micro-biographies of the usual players add color, as do the plethora of Lincoln quotes, many poignant. Readers of Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough will recognize here the republic at a crossroads and the bellwether of a nation who saw beyond.

Cynthia