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Criminal Minds From Other Times

Deadly ValentinesDeath in the City of LightLooking for a little history to go with your true crime? Two recent titles provide thrilling accounts of historical murders. One is set in Chicago and chronicles the rise and fall of Al Capone’s chief assassin, Jack McGurn. The other is about a serial killer in World War II Paris. Both are thoroughly researched, emphasizing the mayhem and extremism prevalent in these time periods. In Deadly Valentines: The Story of Capone's Henchman "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn and Louise Rolfe, His Blonde Alibi, Jeffrey Gusfield opens with an account of the infamous Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 Chicago.  Known assassin Jack McGurn and his girlfriend Louise Rolfe are the likely suspects.  But how does a boy from an immigrant family and a middle-class Midwestern girl end up embodying the Roaring Twenties’ hallmarks of excess, liquor, and grisly murder? By tracing their lives from childhood, Gusfield draws a connection between humble beginnings and a gangster lifestyle rife with crime and corruption. 

 

David King’s Death in the City of Light follows the rise of Marcel Petiot, who was regarded as a kindly doctor of the less fortunate until multiple human body parts were found in the basement of his Paris home in 1944.  His subsequent trial quickly devolved into a media circus. The Nazi occupation and government corruption further complicated matters and added to the train wreck of judicial proceedings, leading to a frustrating and perplexing conclusion.Perhaps most fascinating about both books are the unanswered questions.  Was Louise cold-blooded, or just someone unable to live a conventional life?  How did Petiot actually kill his victims? Those who enjoy historical accounts full of drama, danger and mystery (like Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City) will find these books to be satisfying page-turners. 

 

Melanie

 
 

Hail to the Chief

Hail to the Chief

posted by:
June 4, 2012 - 6:01am

Grover Cleveland's Rubber JawThe Presidents ClubDid you know that every American president has worn glasses? Or that John Quincy Adams had a pet alligator that he kept in the White House bathtub? If you’re looking for quirky presidential trivia, try Stephen Spignesi’s Grover Cleveland’s Rubber Jaw & Other Unusual, Unexpected, Unbelievable but All-True Facts about America’s Presidents. For example, Millard Fillmore’s favorite color was fuchsia.  Ronald Reagan was claustrophobic. A man once attacked Franklin Pierce and threw a hard-boiled egg at him. This book has all of the facts that you didn’t learn in U.S.history, but should have!  Spignesi includes the good, the bad, and the just plain weird. It will appeal to presidential history buffs, as well as fans of trivia who just want to flip through the pages and have fun with history.

 

Those interested in a more serious look at the presidency should try The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity.  Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, both editors at Time magazine, explore the relationships among the last 13 presidents. The book gets its title from the informal group jokingly named by Hoover and Truman. Now, it describes the bond that exists between former presidents regardless of their different political viewpoints. Many former presidents have assisted sitting presidents by serving as advisors or in diplomatic capacities. Reagan even stepped in to teach Clinton how to salute uniformed military personnel properly, and Clinton has developed a deep friendship with George H. W. Bush. In The Presidents Club, Gibbs and Duffy explore these little known connections and the history that created them.

Beth

 
 

And DOWN the Stretch They Come

EclipseKentucky Derby DreamsDrive around Maryland’s thoroughbred horse country, and it’s hard to imagine a more picturesque scene than the mare and her foal romping in a shamrock green field. It is equally hard to imagine the carefully orchestrated breeding and the trials of their short lived careers. Just in time for this year's Triple Crown campaign, two new books take an in-depth look at these storied animals whose equine feats define the sport of kings.    

 

In his well-researched biography, Eclipse: the Horse that Changed Racing History Forever,  journalist  Nicholas Clee brings to life the greatest horse of all time and his roguish owner, Dennis O'Kelly. Clee vividly describes mid-18th century Georgian England as a gambler's paradise. In this milieu, the Irishman wheels and deals, until he has purchased the undefeated Eclipse, the freakishly fast chestnut thoroughbred whose astounding number of progeny includes this year's Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another.  How O'Kelly and his brothel-owning companion, Charlotte,  manage to reap the benefits from their chosen activities and turn a racehorse into a breeding stallion for the ages is what makes this historical narrative fun to read.  

 

Fast forward 250 years to Susan Nusser's Kentucky Derby Dreams: The Making of Thoroughbred Champions.  Nusser deftly records the behind-the-scenes pulse of one of Kentucky's elite horse breeding operations as it readies for a new crop of foals. It is an exhausting schedule of barn rounds, meetings, crises, x-rays, and runway-like parading, all in the hope of getting to the yearling sales. Nusser's prose is fast paced and heartfelt. A prime example is when she describes a mare's anguish over the death of a foal: "her wail is steady, coming in waves, one right after the other."  Making it to the finish line is never taken for granted.

 

Horse lovers and historians, including fans of Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit and Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven, will appreciate these revealing glimpses inside the racing world and the fragile four-legged athletes who run their hearts out.

Cynthia

 
 

Must Read TV

Imagine a world without DVRs and streaming video.  Go back to a time when half the country watched the same television shows which became mandatory water cooler conversation the next day.  Former NBC executive, Warren Littlefield brings such a world to life in Top of the Rock: The Rise and Fall of Must-See TV.  NBC was in its glory days in the 1990s with its “Must-See TV” lineup which included shows like Friends, Seinfeld, Will & Grace, and Frasier.  To capture the essence of this heyday, Littlefield, with assistance from novelist T.R. Pearson, interviewed more than fifty actors, writers, producers, agents, and executives. The actors include Kelsey Grammer, Sean Hayes, Lisa Kudrow, and Jerry Seinfeld, but the network head honchos are represented as well.

 

Littlefield offers the perspective of an insider and the interviewees are frank when talking about both the good and the bad memories of this time. Readers who enjoyed the sitcom Friends may be surprised to hear that Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) was rejected for the role of Ross. Lisa Kudrow had originally been cast as Roz on Frasier, but was luckily for Phoebe fans, she was fired and replaced by Peri Gilpin. Before settling on the name Friends, the creators called their show "Six of One".  This entertaining, quick read is for all those who love a little show business scoop and for those who miss cozy Thursday nights at Central Perk!

Maureen

 
 

A Voice for His Generation

A Voice for His Generation

posted by:
May 29, 2012 - 6:01am

PulpheadAs a contributor to many publications such as GQ, Harper’s, and The New York Times Magazine, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Southern editor for The Paris Review, is an accomplished essayist. His collection, Pulphead: Essays, brings together fourteen of his best long-form works from the past decade. Sullivan writes on intriguing topics, including a visit to a large, annual Christian rock festival in Kentucky. There he meets a group of young men from West Virginia who he connects with and learns their varied motivations for being there. A strong sense of place and emotion is stirred when he places himself among the throngs of believers, many of whom come to this event year after year. A supporting “character” is the RV that Sullivan rents to attend the occasion; he explores the benefits and foibles of having such a vehicle there.

 

A more personal essay describes Sullivan’s experience after his brother Worth is electrocuted in a bizarre accident, and the resulting aftermath of the coma that follows. As in many of the essays, humor worms its way into otherwise sobering events, such as recounting how many details of this incident were remembered because it had appeared on reality show Rescue 911, hosted by William Shatner. Perhaps the most fascinating of his subjects is Mister Lytle, the last of a scholarly group known as the “Twelve Southerners”. Sullivan spends some months living with the 92-year-old man, and the experiences that they share are captivating. A window into the Old South that still existed not too very long ago is opened and strikingly examined.

 

Other topics include the Gulf Coast of Mississippi just days just after Hurricane Katrina; the experiences of reality show characters after "their" season has passed; and one essay each on Michael Jackson and Axl Rose. John Jeremiah Sullivan is a writer who captures the longing, introspection, and world-weariness that exemplify the feelings of his Gen X contemporaries.

Todd

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Indian Nation

Rez LifeRez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation by David Treuer is part memoir, part history, and part cultural study of Indian reservations. There are approximately 310 Indian reservations in the United States today; Treuer says reservations are as “American as apple pie.” Americans are captivated by Indians yet many people will go through their entire life without knowing an Indian or spending any time on a reservation.

 

Life on a reservation or “rez life” is often associated with poverty and alcoholism. Treuer does not shy away from these realities. There are heartbreaking stories of unimaginable poverty throughout the book. Numbers also reveal a bleak existence: no running water until the late 1990s, 80% unemployment rates and a median household income of $17,000. This does not sum up “rez life” completely, though. Treuer writes, “What one finds on reservations is more than scars, tears, blood, and noble sentiment. There is beauty in Indian life, as well as meaning....We love our reservations.”

 

Rez Life is not a dismal book, by any means. There are touching (and often very humorous) stories of family life throughout. Treuer reminds us that not all Indians are poor and not all reservations are poor. The wealthy Seminole nation is the current owner of the Hard Rock Cafe franchise. This proves, as Treuer puts it, that the Seminoles have been “kicking ass and taking names for a very long time.”

 

Treuer is the perfect writer for this book. He is a journalist and creative writing professor who knows how to synthesize a massive, complicated subject into personal, engaging stories. He has a keen attention to detail and is a master storyteller who also grew up on a reservation. Treuer is an Ojibwe Indian, raised on Leech Lake Reservation in Northern Minnesota. His father is an Austrian Jew and Holocaust survivor, his mother a tribal court judge. Indeed, his personal story (interspersed throughout the book) makes for a fascinating biography. Readers who enjoy biographies, modern history and cultural studies will not want to miss Rez Life.

 

Zeke

 
 

Rise of the Third Reich

Rise of the Third Reich

posted by:
May 24, 2012 - 6:01am

HitlerlandWhy? How? Who hasn’t posed these questions when learning about Adolph Hitler, Nazism’s demonic agendas, and the passivity of world powers like the United States in the face of Germany’s aggressive militancy? In Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power, author Andrew Nagorski provides insight into the ascension of  Hitler through  first person accounts of American reporters, foreign service officials, and other prominent US citizens living and working abroad.

 

Comparisons between Hitlerland and Erik Larson’s bestselling In the Garden of Beasts are inevitable as both books concern themselves with Hitler and his National Socialists’ power grab in the period leading up to World War II.  While Larson’s book focuses primarily on viewing history through the eyes of the US Ambassador William Dodd and his soon-to-be infamous daughter Martha, Nagorski documents his story with varied voices such as author Sinclair Lewis and his journalist wife Dorothy Thompson, historian William Shirer, reporter Edgar Mowrer and diplomat Truman Smith.  The cast of characters named in Larson’s book, such as self-avowed half-American Hitler confidante Putzi Hanfstaengl, reappears in Hitlerland but Nagorski fleshes out their stories and places them into the bigger picture. Nagorski excels at explaining the back story of Nazi Germany, looking at the humiliating German defeat in WWI, the conditions imposed under the Treaty of Versailles, the deterioration of the Germany economy, and the decline of moral standards a la Cabaret. He also details the casually anti-Semitic attitudes of the times both in Europe and in the United States.   The book’s timeline is a rather straightforward chronology which contributes to an ease of understanding the events in context and the cumulative effect of primary source material conveys the horror building in the fatherland. Hitlerland is an excellent choice for history buffs and neophytes alike.

Lori

 
 

The Pioneer Woman Does It All

Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food From My FrontierCharlie the Ranch DogBlack Heels to Tractor Wheels

Ree Drummond is a successful blogger, Food Network star, and author.  Her down-home comfort foods have really struck a chord with readers and cooks from all walks of life. Drummond’s success began with her blog The Pioneer Woman, which has a legion of followers, receiving 24 million hits monthly.  The blog covers her family life on an Oklahoma cattle ranch, her efforts to homeschool her children, and of course, cooking.  The recipes are delicious and easy to follow, and readers love that Drummond illustrates them with step-by-step photos.

 

It seemed like a natural transition for Drummond to publish cookbooks.  Her most recent, The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food from My Frontier, is filled with tasty recipes color photos, and Drummond’s anecdotes and comments.  You’ll want to try the recipes for yourself when you see her homemade glazed doughnuts, cowgirl quiche, and “Knock You Naked” brownies!  The book quickly became a bestseller, and there are now more than 480,000 copies in print.

Drummond recently started filming the second season of her Food Network show “The Pioneer Woman”.  Like her blog, the show features her life on the ranch, her family, and her favorite recipes.  Viewers will also be interested to know that she has published a picture book called Charlie the Ranch Dog that features her family’s beloved basset hound.

 

It’s not all about the recipes, though.  To learn more about Drummond’s life, try her memoir Black Heels to Tractor Wheels: A Love Story, which tells the story of how she met her husband Ladd Drummond who she affectionately calls Marlboro Man in the book and her blog.  Ree originally planned to go on to law school, but everything changed when she met Ladd.  She shocked her family by marrying him and moving to the ranch. The rest, as they say, is history.

Beth

 
 

Baseball's Odd Couple

Driving Mr. YogiFor Yogi Berra and Ron Guidry spring training is a renewal of their friendship. Every spring former Yankees’ pitching superstar Guidry drives to the Tampa airport and picks up former Yankees’ catcher and Hall of Famer Berra. The two go the ballpark, watch games, eat dinner together, and trade stories.  Every day for the next month follows the same pattern. Driving Mr. Yogi is the story of the bond between two men who on the surface appear to share only baseball in common.   The catcher from a poor Italian neighborhood in St. Louis and the pitcher from Cajun swamp country were born a quarter of a century apart, and yet today Guidry calls Berra his best friend.  New York Times reporter Harvey Araton first shared this story last year in an article in the paper and expands on it in this humorous and thoughtful narrative. 

 

It all began in 1999, when Berra was reunited with the Yankees following a 14 year self-exile that began when he was fired by George Steinbrenner.  The rift between the two men led Berra to cut all ties with the Bronx Bombers. The Boss finally offered an apology and Berra went back to spring training where Guidry befriended him. Berra had been a clubhouse mentor during Guidry’s playing days and Ron knew the young players would benefit from Berra’s impressive knowledge of the game and its history. Sure enough, Berra’s casual batting tip changed Nick Swisher's season, and the new ballplayers savored the anecdotes about famous old-timers such as Ted Williams and Don Larsen.    

This is a story of baseball and the rituals of spring training, but it is also a funny and affectionate story of friendship that transcends generations. And yes, it is the Yankees, but even the most ardent Orioles fan will appreciate this engaging story of two likeable sportsmen!

Maureen

 
 

Spiritual, But Not Religious

Christianity After ReligionBaltimore-born Diana Butler Bass has written extensively about the state of matters of faith in America over the past thirty years. Now, in Christianity after Religion: the End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, she argues that we are once again in a spiritual upheaval in the United States. This, she posits, is yet another in the line of spiritual “awakenings” that has gripped people of faith during times of change, such as today - the early 21st century.

 

Bass discusses some of the religious changes that have taken hold in the United States: the falling away of many from the faiths of their parents and ancestors; the loss of membership among large Christian denominations, such as Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant groups; and the current rise in self-made spirituality. A surprising piece of information is how megachurches, which grew out of the most recent spiritual awakening of the 1970s, have largely plateaued in popularity over the past decade. Testimonies, analyzed polls, and quotes from religious scholars and leaders comparing the beliefs of Americans over the decades are interspersed throughout, lending considerable validity to her arguments.

 

The current awakening the author describes is the way in which Christianity is evolving beyond traditional religious structures. Our global connectedness and increased access to communication has allowed individuals to choose spiritual elements from many religious backgrounds, such as prayer, yoga, meditation, and joyful traditions to create their own connection with a higher power. These faiths are also instilled with valuable information coming from the secular world, such as environmental and social considerations. This is a provocative and eye-opening work from one of today’s top religion writers.

Todd