Local author and news commentator Michael Olesker knows his Baltimore as well as anyone. For a quarter-century, the former News American and Baltimore Sun columnist has captured the changing pulse of the flawed hometown he loves, illuminating countless important issues along the way. Olesker's latest book, Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age, is a nostalgic-yet-edgy look back at a time of relative innocence for Baltimore and the country. Join him as he discusses this latest work on Tuesday, August 5 at 7 p.m. at the North Point Branch. The program, the third in the “Dundalk Dialogs” author speaker series, will include a book talk, signing and light refreshments. Recently, the author answered questions for Between the Covers about his new book.
Between the Covers: You have been a longtime chronicler of Baltimore’s history. How did you come up with the idea for this book?
Michael Olesker: I’ve always felt that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was a real dividing line in American politics and culture, as well as the real dividing line between the 1950s and ’60s. We recall the ’50s as an innocent time. We recall the ’60s as a time of social chaos: assassinations, wars, riots, terrific upheaval, some good, some bad, much of it quite difficult. But a lot of the ’60s changes were bubbling just beneath the surface in the ’50s. Several years ago, with the 50th anniversary of the assassination approaching, it occurred to me that quite a few Baltimoreans had a profound effect on the nation’s history, and they’d come of age here in the ’50s. Having grown up here in that era, I’ve always felt a real connection to that time.
BTC: You tell the stories of many of Charm City’s personalities, including Nancy Pelosi, Thurgood Marshall and Barry Levinson, coming of age before the complicated 1960s changed the way people looked at themselves and their country. Why were these stories important to share?
MO: As a product of the Baltimore City public school system, I always felt we were taught the Great Man theory of history. That is, presidents and prime ministers and kings change the world. But I think a lot of great change comes from the ground up. Nancy Pelosi’s father was mayor, but her mother ran an army of political women in a time when women were still political non-entities. That was a profound lesson. Thurgood Marshall was the product of a segregated school system and couldn’t get into the University of Maryland Law School because of his skin color. That was a profound motivator as he went on to change the nation’s schools. Barry Levinson was a kid soaking up movie and TV culture and knew that it didn’t reflect the world as he knew it. That was a great motivator for him.
BTC: What made you begin and end with the Kennedy assassination?
MO: My previous book, The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the Fifties, was a 50th anniversary look back at the legendary 1958 Colts who won pro football’s “greatest game ever played.” The response to it was so overwhelmingly heartfelt that the Hopkins Press folks suggested the 50th anniversary of Dallas was another real emotional hook for many people. I wanted to profile not only those people who went on to change the country but the Baltimore of that era — the working class town, the sixth biggest city in the country, the city of neighborhoods and people sitting on front stoops to catch up on the world — but a town on the verge of so many profound changes.
BTC: Why did you decide to write in the present tense?
MO: In my mind, the past never entirely goes away — it still flutters around us, still moves the world in ways we don’t always notice. I felt, from the very first sentence I wrote, that the ’50s were still alive and that, by writing in the present tense, I’d give my narrative a greater sense of immediacy.
BTC: You write that, for newspapers, the Kennedy assassination signaled the “opening moment of long decades of coughing and wheezing their way out of existence.” You have lived through a lot of changes. Where do you see the news gathering business in 10 or 20 years?
MO: We’re currently in a shaking-out period where even the brightest people haven’t figured out where journalism is heading. What’s become clear to me — from years at newspapers, from years on nightly TV news and from years teaching at one of our local colleges — is that a lot of people don’t have the attention span they once had, nor the patience for long-form reading. They want instant gratification, easily digestible bites of information, and then they move on to the next amusement. Millions of us now live moment-to-moment lifestyles but don’t know the history of the last 10 minutes, much less 10 years. I hope my book is a chance for people to see, in an entertaining way, how we began to get where we are.
BTC: Do you think there is any charm left in Charm City?
MO: Absolutely. I think the city’s best years are still ahead of it. Are we losing some of our inimitable “Bawlamer” uniqueness? Sure. But change is always inevitable. What’s shocked all of us is the speed of all this change.
Marina Keegan was an aspiring essayist, playwright and author of short fiction whose talents were burgeoning before she was killed in a car crash in 2012. She was most renowned for her essay “The Opposite of Loneliness,” which was featured in Yale’s 2012 commencement activities. Through the efforts of her family and friends, Keegan’s works have been assembled as a book, also titled The Opposite of Loneliness, a collection which deserves as much celebration as Keegan herself.
Keegan’s fiction is grounded and believable, populated with disarming characters yearning to divulge their intimacies to readers. In “Cold Pastoral,” a girl laments the death of a boyfriend she only recently began dating, and is racked with guilt as she witnesses his ex suffering more than she is. “Challenger Deep,” which portrays a small crew trapped in an unpowered submarine stuck at the bottom of an oceanic trench, is Keegan’s most unsettling, imaginative and beautiful tale.
Keegan’s essays gleam with scholarly poise as she acknowledges the complexities of approaching adulthood with a teenage candor. “Against the Grain” is a reflection on growing up with Celiac’s disease, and the embarrassing safety extremes her mother went to out of love. “Song for the Special” is a gentle reminder of humanity’s diminutive existence in the vast universe we inhabit.
What makes The Opposite of Loneliness so wondrous is not its posthumous publication; each piece is brimming with a nearly unattainable blend of worldly presence and youthful hyperbole. It’s so depressing that Keegan’s talents were stifled at such a young age. This collection resonates in reverie of the marvels that would have been.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, the moment that set the history of the rest of the 20th century in motion. Believed at first to be a war that would take weeks or months to settle, the war dragged on for four long, tragic years until the armistice was signed in 1918. Many new titles have been written that bring a better understanding of this period and the catastrophe of the war.
R.G. Grant’s World War I: the Definitive Visual History, from Sarajevo to Versailles is a terrific introduction to many facets of the conflict. DK Publishing, partnering with the Smithsonian, brings manageable text and countless period photographs here to best explain the personalities, weapons and cultural artifacts of the time period. In The Long Shadow: The Legacy of the Great War in the Twentieth Century, David Reynolds discusses the ramifications of the war, and rethinks some of the theses that have become too-easy explanations for its causes and results. He also looks at its decades-long impact on the art and literary world and how it brought about Modernism. Howard Blum’s Dark Invasion: 1915: Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Tale in America is a fascinating tale of espionage and intrigue is. New York City and other American cities were targeted by German spies to discourage munitions and other supplies from going across the Atlantic to the Allied forces, long before United States troops became officially embroiled in the conflict itself.
Novels set in the time period are perennially popular, such as the Maisie Dobbs mysteries. Now, that series’ author, Jacqueline Winspear, returns with the elegiac and stunning The Care and Management of Lies. Two very different young women come together in the backdrop of the war that has taken away the men in their lives. And Max Brooks’ graphic novel The Harlem Hellfighters is fiction rooted in the heroic tales of the famous African-American 369th Infantry Regiment who fought for France due to antiquated, racially-motivated rules within the American Expeditionary Forces.
Two books cordially invite readers to the wild and wonderful world of weddings. Bestselling novelist Mary Kay Andrews and debut memoirist Jen Doll offer different takes on nuptials in each of their new books titled Save the Date. Andrews shares a behind-the-scene look from the florist’s perspective, while Doll explores what she’s learned about life as a frequent guest. Both are stories of young women trying to figure out this love and marriage thing in an ever-changing world.
In Andrews’ version, Cara is recently divorced from a philandering husband and has renounced love. But it’s hard to escape as she builds her reputation as one of Savannah’s top wedding florists. She has snared the wedding of the year and, if successful, her career will be cemented, she will be able to pay off her loan to her father and her business will be in the black. But when the bride disappears, Cara’s future looks bleak. Cara pursues the runaway bride and, along the way, is forced to come to grips with her real feelings about love – especially in light of the persistent attentions of sexy, charming Jack Finnerty. Readers will be rooting for the immensely likeable Cara as she chases a bride and finds her dreams.
Doll, an unmarried journalist, has attended dozens of weddings, and each has impacted her in some fashion. From courthouse to destination, with few guests or hundreds, Doll has seen a variety of ceremonies and has a takeaway from each. The entertaining reception stories include confronting an old nemesis and drunkenly melting down. Doll explores the institution of marriage and expresses the normal anxieties of a single person whose friends are tying the knot. It’s also an interesting glimpse at the evolving relationships of a singleton with couples over time. Doll’s exploration of marriage allows her to shed light on society’s changing perceptions of marriage and her own possibility of walking down the aisle.
In 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.
Coming 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.
The local farmer’s market has come alive with the colors and flavors of seasonal vegetables, so now is a great time to dive into The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Vegetable Cookbook and add more greens to your table.
Fans will remember Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell as the two NYC executives who gave up their jobs, purchased a goat farm in Sharon Springs, New York, and became successful reality TV celebrities on The Fabulous Beekman Boys and The Amazing Race. The cookbooks are certainly popular. Food & Wine magazine rated the The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Dessert Cookbook as one of the best of 2013. Brent and Josh include personal anecdotes in the introduction to many of the recipes and have added beautiful color photographs of many of the dishes and photographs of life on the Beekman farm. Recipes have a classic feel, feature easy-to-find ingredients and are simple enough for cooks with little kitchen experience. Imagine the delight when you show up at the next company picnic with a chocolate beet cake or a multi-hued tomato tart!
Between the Covers posed some questions to Brent and Josh about the cookbook:
Between the Covers: The cookbook is divided into four “seasons” of recipes. Which season inspires you the most to make creative dishes?
Brent and Josh: Our entire company is based around seasonal living, so we draw inspiration from and try to make the most of what each season offers. It's not fair to choose favorites.
BTC: In the introduction, you encourage the reader to use the cookbook as an heirloom that could inspire future generations of cooks. What is an heirloom recipe?
B&J: An heirloom recipe is one that is made so frequently in your family that it has its own folklore and mythology built around it. In order to become an heirloom, we think a recipe has to be delicious, easy to make and include readily available ingredients. These are the types of foods that we find comfort in.
BTC: Can you tell us about any family member that inspired you to work with food?
B&J: Brent takes a lot of inspiration from his grandmother and great-grandmother who managed to put delicious meals on the table even in the hard-environs of the West Virginia coal mining communities. Josh's uncle, an ex-pat living in the south of France, taught him that technique is secondary to having the best, freshest ingredients.
BTC: Can you tell us a bit about the test process that takes you from an idea to a finished, polished recipe?
B&J: We cook dinner every single night that we are at the farm. Most of the recipes for all of our books have their origins in these meals. We harvest what is ready to be harvested and then ask ourselves, "What can we do with this?"
BTC: How do you divide your kitchen duties?
B&J: Brent is the creative thinker. Josh is the master of execution.
BTC: Do you have any words of encouragement for kitchen novices who really want to start eating fresher at home?
B&J: Think of your trip to the market as a grand adventure. Choose one new fresh ingredient each week and learn how to make it shine in something you cook.
If you would like to meet Brent and Josh, they will be appearing at the Baltimore Book Festival on Saturday, September 27 at 5 p.m.
For more information about the Beekman boys, read The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentleman Farmers by Josh Kilmer-Purcell.
To commemorate the centennial of the outbreak of World War I this summer, many new books have been and will continue to be released. They range from new analyses of battles, biographies of personalities of the era and wide-ranging assessments of how the ‘War to End All Wars’ set the history of the 20th and 21st century and its continuing conflicts in motion. A furry character study for young readers comes in Ann Bausum’s Stubby the War Dog: The True Story of World War I’s Bravest Dog. As the United States was at last pulled into the war in 1917, a stray, brindle-colored Boston Bull Terrier wandered onto a soldiers’ training ground at Yale University. The soldiers all took a liking to this sweet, short-tailed dog, but none more than enlisted man James Conroy.
Training complete (for both men and dog), the soldiers were sent to sea, and Conroy smuggled the pup onto the ship bound for France. Now considered a mascot, Stubby had been taught to stand on his rear legs and lift his right paw to salute high-ranking officers. This endeared Stubby to all he met, including women of the French resistance, who sewed him a natty uniform. The dog turned out to be a valiant and useful addition to the men in the trenches, as he aided with rat removal, alerted the men to enemies approaching and was even temporarily wounded in action while helping to discover landmines. Bausum illustrates the history of the four-legged hero with plenty of period photographs from the Conroy family collection and other ephemera of the WWI era. Her impeccable research is outlined in endnotes and an extensive bibliography. She also tells of this famous dog in Sergeant Stubby: How a Stray Dog and His Best Friend Helped Win World War I and Stole the Heart of a Nation, written for adult readers. This title covers even more of Stubby’s exploits during and after the war. Both books are published by National Geographic, and are excellent avenues into this period. They will be enjoyed by dog lovers as well as by history buffs.
Maryland folklorist Elaine Eff is a champion of local culture and traditions. In her new book, she sets her sights on a much-loved Baltimore icon: the painted window screen and the artists who created them. Eff will discuss her latest work, The Painted Screens of Baltimore: an Urban Folk Art Revealed, on Tuesday, July 1 at 7:00 p.m. at the North Point Branch. The program, which is part of the branch’s “Dundalk Dialogs” local author speaker series, will include a book talk and signing. Eff recently answered questions for Between the Covers about her new book.
Between the Covers: How did you become interested in the history of Baltimore’s painted screens?
Elaine Eff: Serendipity. Two coincidences that changed the course of my life: As a Baltimore girl, I was expected to be an authority on our local folk art – which I was not. In fact, I knew nothing on the subject. When I arrived at graduate school, I found a 19thcentury – not Baltimore, but New York State – painted screen in our museum’s collection, and that started my journey. I needed to learn what history, if any, the two might share.
BTC: Can you share how you conducted your research for this project?
EF: Face-to-face, person-by-person. Visiting artists, walking the streets of East Baltimore, talking to strangers, traveling to libraries, museums and archives nationwide, international research and casting the net wider and deeper as the subject became richer and more fascinating.
BTC: What do you want readers, who may not have any knowledge of this Baltimore tradition, to take away from your book?
EF: Painted screens are a response to a community’s need for privacy. Row houses demand them, and they had the extra bonus of being downright beautiful. “You see out. No one sees in,” and “They used to be everywhere” is what you hear all the time. The book is as much about Baltimore and neighborhood building. It has something for everyone and can be appreciated on many levels: as a whole, in small bites or tastes here and there. Appreciate what an incredible city of resourceful people can make happen.
BTC: Among the painters you researched were there any who were as colorful as the art they created?
EF: Every single one. That is why I first made the film The Screen Painters. Every painter is a movie in him or herself. They needed to tell their own story and did. They are an incredible group of creative individuals who changed the face of a city. Not bad for a bunch of local untrained artists! The book gives you a glimpse into that wonderful era when the sidewalks told a very different – an incredibly colorful —story, in many ways.
BTC: What were some of the favorite images seen around town?
EF: The Red Bungalow was it. Everyone wanted to have the red cottage with a winding path, a pond and swans. Ninety percent of the windows had that scene as interpreted by hundreds of different hands. Today things are very different — strangely, now we see a lot of local landmarks, like the [Patterson Park] Pagoda. One house in Highlandtown even has Formstone painted on the window screen! Big difference is it used to be EVERY window and door — front and back. Now we see the front window and little more. Times and tastes have changed. And that is wonderful.
Readers who would like to learn more can also visit The Painted Screen Society of Baltimore website.
You 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.