Tales from the Holy Land, the new collection of short stories from Baltimore’s own Rafael Alvarez, former reporter for The Baltimore Sun and writer for Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire, is equal parts time machine and atlas. The stories are set in Baltimore, but a Baltimore that both no longer exists, yet still lingers on in memories. As Alvarez’s characters make their way through the world, we get an intimate view of the landmarks, both physical and cultural, that made up Old Baltimore and haunt the new Baltimore like a legacy forgotten by a city unsure if it's on the rise or in the final stages of its demise.
The characters in this collection will be familiar to fans of Alvarez’s earlier works, and they are as welcome as old friends. Much like the physical landmarks that are so often prominent, these characters are highly representative of the many cultural backgrounds that made up Old Baltimore. Tales from the Holy Land is, in that way, like an atlas, denoting the patchwork of tribes — Poles, Italians, Slovaks, Germans, African-Americans, Irish, Jews, Spaniards, Greeks and all the rest — that made up the city, lived side by side and worked hard every day of their lives. Alvarez has written a paean to these people, to their cultures, their beliefs and to the incredible food that they brought with them and readily shared with their neighbors. Food is a common theme in these tales, and the sweet aromas of the dishes waft off the pages.
Alvarez’s stories are often bittersweet and dark, raw and gritty. They marvel at the monsters — crime, poverty and prejudice — which so quickly overtook a great American metropolis and sent waves of people streaming out to the suburbs. This is clearly a very personal book, intended for a mature audience. If you have wandered the bones of this city and wondered what lies beneath, then the place to start your excavation is Tales from the Holy Land.
The North Point Branch of BCPL is pleased to host Rafael Alvarez as he begins his tour for Tales from the Holy Land. Join us for an author talk and book signing on Thursday, January 16 at 7:00 p.m.
It may be as cold as Hoth out there, but Valentine’s Day will soon be upon us, and you want to make sure that you're ready to explore those strange, new worlds of romance. Whether you are a comic book fan, a gamer or a techno-nerd, it’s time to stop being a n00b when it comes to your love life and “boldly go where no geek has gone before!” The Geek’s Guide to Dating by Eric Smith is a great walkthrough guide to help you navigate the dating scene and avoid an epic fail. While most of the book is written for the geek guy, there is still plenty of pertinent information for the geek with XX chromosomes.
From selecting your character to first contact and all the way to the boss level, Smith will give you the cheat codes and troubleshooting tips to help make that first date result in a sequel. Have no fear if you crash and burn, sometimes the princess is in the other castle. You will also learn valuable tips on how to respawn without losing XP. Filled with colorful eight-bit illustrations and loads of geek culture references, this book is a fun read for geeks of all ages — even if you've already found the droid you were looking for!
Pastry chef Serafina Wilde is a hot mess. Reeling from the cruelties of her celebrity chef ex and struggling to rebuild her reputation in the cutthroat New York City catering world, she escapes to Santa Fe to lend support to her free-spirited Aunt Pauline. So begins Bliss by Hilary Fields, a yummy debut about picking up the pieces and starting over in a place far from the epicenter of your past troubles.
Aunt Pauline has always filled many roles in Serafina’s life, including guardian when a teenaged Serafina lost her parents. Now Aunt Pauline needs her too, as she has just experienced the loss of her partner Hortencia. In Santa Fe, Pauline is offering Serafina the opportunity of a professional lifetime — to turn her business, “Pauline’s House of Passion,” into a bakery. There’s only one condition: the unconventional Pauline, who in the 1970s started an offshoot of the women’s lib movement, is determined to keep her back room of sex toys and all things Kama Sutra, suggesting to Serafina that it could be a business of both “sinful desserts and earthly delights.” Why not? As Serafina begins to rebuild her life and rediscover love, she learns that being a nonconformist in “City Different” has its perks.
Fans of Beth Harbison or Emily Giffin will love this wacky tale full of laugh-out-loud moments, mouthwatering descriptions of food and a carefree setting of well-developed quirky characters. Perfect as a remedy to post-holiday stress, or as a fun way to ease into the new year. Fields’ message is clear: Happiness awaits those who follow their bliss.
Last year was an incredibly good year for fantasy novels, especially debut authors. Django Wexler’s first book, The Thousand Names, was one of the best of the year. Like Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan, this is another “flintlock fantasy,” a subgenre where the historical context is much later than the typical Medieval/Renaissance setting, with muskets and artillery replacing swords and bows. The Thousand Names is set in a world much like Victorian Britain and, in this first in a series, the location is an analogue for Egypt under British colonial rule. Just as the Mahdi’s Revolt and religious reawakening threatened British rule in Egypt, the Redeemer Rebellion in Khandar has pushed the Vordanai Colonial Regiment to the sea. The Old Colonials hang on to a miserable spit of land awaiting evacuation, instead they get reinforcement in the form of Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich, a character equal parts Field Marshall Wellington, General “Chinese” Gordon and Yoda. Vhalnich hasn’t come to organize a retreat, nor is his primary objective the re-conquest of Khandar, but something else entirely.
This incredibly well written military fantasy/adventure novel, full of deadly deserts and marauding horseman, harkens back to books like Beau Geste by Percival Wren and The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason and movies like Khartoum. It also breaks new ground in powerful female protagonists in gender-defying roles and romances. There are no damsels in distress here, as they are too busy putting cold steel to their enemies. Wexler has created a world that he can expand to a global setting or narrow to focus on court intrigue, as his next book seems to do. More importantly, the court intrigue and the excellently detailed battles never take primacy over character development. Waxler has given us a band of brothers — and sisters — that have depth and motivation, and are compelling to read about. The magic use in the book builds slowly and organically until the climatic end, which is a scene fit for the big screen. The Thousand Names delivers on all its promise and shows how a good fantasy novel can shake up old tropes and borrow and improve on tropes from other types of literature. It will leave you wondering why the second book isn’t already in your hands.
P. G. Wodehouse is well-known for his dry wit and ability to make readers laugh out loud. His Jeeves and Wooster series has spawned plays, movies and, most notably, a TV series starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Fortunately, the series also inspired Sebastian Faulks to pen Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, based on the adventures of the hapless Bertram Wooster and his ‘gentlemen’s personal gentleman’ Jeeves.
For those unfamiliar with the series, Faulks gives enough detail in his story to get a good sense of backstory for Bertie and Jeeves. Wooster as the narrator is, well, perhaps not the most intellectually astute person, but one with a definite charm and sweetness that helps to soften the insipidity of the situations into which he often blunders. In the very stratified British class system, Bertie is a public- school-educated, old-money-type, with plenty of titled gentry amongst his relations and friends. Jeeves is ostensibly a servant, but he is much more than that to Bertie – and to everyone else he encounters. Head and shoulders above those he serves, Jeeves is the one who Bertie and most of his circle turn to when faced with crises of any kind.
The best thing about this new installment is that Faulks has emulated the characters so well that even a true admirer of Wodehouse will be impressed with the attention to detail here. The plot consists of Jeeves through a typically ‘Woosterian’ series of mistakes being forced to impersonate Lord Etringham in order to keep the peace among the aristocracy and to assist Bertie from accidentally becoming entangled with yet another well-heeled-yet-horrid debutante. As always, Bertie’s efforts to assist Jeeves in his orderly plans cause further complications, but the reader knows that Jeeves will set everything right in the end.
Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is a sheer delight for those who have mourned the lack of Wodehouse- level writing since his death in 1975. There is no indication whether Faulks intends to continue writing further adventures with Jeeves and Wooster, but we can all hope that he does.
Baltimore author Rafael Alvarez discusses his new book, Tales from the Holy Land, on Thursday, Jan. 16 at 7 p.m. at the North Point Branch. The former reporter for The Baltimore Sun and writer for The Wire recently answered questions for Between the Covers about his latest collection of short stories on the magic of old Baltimore.
Q. Your new collection of short stories, Tales from the Holy Land, comes out this month. If you had to choose one story that epitomizes the gritty resolve of your hometown, what would it be?
A. "Junie Bug," in which a man spends his life digging in Leakin Park for the body of his father; and "The Sacred Heart of Ruthie," in which an orphan raised by the Oblate Sisters of Providence grows up to be a heart surgeon.
Q. This is your third collection of short fiction. What makes you favor short stories as your literary medium? How did this latest book come about?
A. I write fiction every day – about a half hour to an hour a day – in between the journalism and screenwriting I have to do to make a living. When I have enough for a new book I string them together and because I always use the same cast of "Holy Land" characters – Basilio, Grandpop, Nieves, Orlo and Leini, Miss Bonnie – it reads more like a novelized "mural" than stand alone short stories. [As a] side note, the 2013 Nobel Prize winner, Alice Munro, works exclusively in the short story genre.
Q. As a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun and former writer for the HBO cop drama, The Wire, you have witnessed a lot of Baltimore's heartbreak. How do you keep cynicism from overtaking your writing?
A. There are two, maybe three Baltimores within the city. I have lived in Baltimore for all of my 55 years – was educated here, raised my children here – and have never been the victim of a crime. I am thankful for that, but I'm not ignorant of how fortunate I am to have been born into the 1960s middle-class and not the entrenched underclass. I keep cynicism away from my art and my soul by means of hope, which I incorporate into both, by believing that the more you give away the more hopeful you become.
Q. Talk a little bit about your family background and its influence on your fiction writing.
A. The best answer to this question is found in the story The Fountain of Highlandtown, which won the 1994 Baltimore City Artscape fiction award and is included in Tales from the Holy Land. The story was my first real success in the world of fiction and, in many ways, is the provenance for all of the stories to come.
If losing weight and getting in shape top your New Year’s resolutions, three new books will help you maximize success. One celebrity chef and two fitness superstars offer diverse plans which all share the foundations of healthy eating and exercise and promise an end result of melting pounds away.
Super Shred: The Big Results Diet by Dr. Ian Smith is a more concentrated program utilizing the principles and building blocks behind Smith’s previous bestseller, Shred. Diet confusion, meal replacement, frequent meals and snacks throughout the day will keep metabolism stoked and reduce hunger pangs. This is the program for those looking to get lean fast or those who have had past success on other programs and need a quick refresher. Smith, a co-host of The Doctors, and medical contributor to the Rachael Ray Show, has a strong social media presence and stays connected with his Shredder Nation via Facebook and Twitter.
Celebrity New York chef Rocco DeSpirito offers a lifestyle plan for dieters to lose up to five pounds every five days in The Pound a Day Diet. This Mediterranean style program allows enjoyment of favorite foods while still losing weight. DeSpirito provides alternatives for weekday and weekend dining with healthy recipes for 28 days. He also shares alternatives for those with no time or inclination to cook. The menus are complemented by his 13-week exercise program which outlines calories lost during various exercises.
One of The Biggest Loser’s trainers, Dolvett Quince, reveals his method of losing pounds fast without feeling deprived in The 3-1-2-1 Diet: Eat and Cheat Your Way to Weight Loss. Quince focuses on mental fitness so the physical transformation can follow. His clean eating plan must be adhered to for three days, but then it’s cheat day! Pizza, ice cream or a glass of wine are all permissible indulgences and these cheat days help satisfy physical and psychological cravings while upping metabolism. Quince’s detailed workout regime is all part of his straightforward plan which takes dieters from inception through maintenance.
In September of 1944, in the final year of World War II, a B-24 bomber piloted by Jack Arnett and carrying 10 servicemen plummeted into the western Pacific Ocean near the Micronesian islands of Palau. The wreckage of the plane disappeared, and the men were presumed dead though no bodies were found. Baltimore author Wil S. Hylton examines the quest of the man who worked to unravel the mystery of crash and the fate of the men on board in Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II.
In 1993, middle-aged medical researcher Pat Scannon was a novice scuba diver, so when an invitation came to search for the underwater ruins of a sunken Japanese hospital ship supposedly laden with gold stolen during WWII, he was hesitant to accept. While diving on the trip, Scannon saw a wing of a different submerged American plane and became determined to answer the question of what happened to Arnett’s aircraft and crew. He assumed that, due to the massive size of a B-24 bomber, he’d locate the crash site fairly quickly; instead, his detective work spanned more than 10 years.
Hylton documents the details of Scannon’s research utilizing books, government documents, archival material and networking with veterans and military contacts. Yet, Vanished is far more than a paper trail. Particularly compelling are the parallel stories of Scannon, the crew members and their families who had been waiting for nearly 60 years for information about the fate of their loved ones. Vanished is a moving account of one man’s determination to lay to rest with honor a forgotten crew of our country’s airmen.
Dukes frequently appear as heroes in historical romances. These two new novels share that common plot element, but with their strong writing and fresh stories, they are far from clichéd. In Victoria Morgan’s The Heart of a Duke, Lady Julia Chandler decides to take matters in her own hands to bring her long-time fiancé, the Duke of Bedford, to the altar. She is tired of being a laughingstock, so she finds him and kisses him, ready to push for a wedding and soon. There’s just one problem: she mistakenly kisses his twin brother Daniel, who has just returned from 10 years in America. Daniel came home to find out who set the fire that nearly killed him after receiving a mysterious note from his late father’s solicitor that read, “It is time. Come home and claim your destiny.” Daniel doesn’t want Julia to marry his brother, but his attention may put her in his enemy’s crosshairs. Morgan is a talented new voice in historical romance.
No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, the third novel in RITA-winner Sarah MacLean’s Rules of Scoundrels quartet, brings us the story of Temple, a duke marked by scandal. He’s known as the Killer Duke because 12 years ago, he woke up covered in blood in the bed of his father’s beautiful, young fiancée. Everyone presumed that he murdered her, though her body was never found. Now, a notorious fighter and co-owner of the infamous Fallen Angel gaming hell, Temple is stunned when Miss Mara Lowe, the woman he is believed to have murdered, shows up on his doorstep ready to bargain with him. If he forgives her brother’s gambling debts, she will show herself in society, proving that he isn’t a murderer. MacLean writes sexy historical romance with wit, warmth and a modern sensibility. The book ends with the revelation of a shocking secret about the identity of Chase, the fourth partner in the Fallen Angel. That secret will leave readers desperate to read the final novel in the series!
Soviet Russian cooking may conjure up images of boiled cabbage and overcooked potatoes, but Anya von Bremzen’s fascinating food memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing reveals a much more rich and flavorful history as it pertains to Soviet-era dishes. As von Bremzen, a food writer, muses in the prologue: “All happy food memories are alike; all unhappy food memories are unhappy after their own fashion.” Following this sentiment, von Bremzen travels between past and present as she and her mother cook and recreate both the supreme and humble food concoctions relational to their homeland’s state of being. There’s the pre-Bolshevik Revolution richness where dishes boast complex flavors and labor-intensive preparation, the uniformity of Lenin’s new Soviet model when blandness and simplicity prevailed, the starvation years of the Stalin- and World War II-eras which lay bare the “recipes” created solely for survival, and the “Thaw” of the 1950s and 1960s when food began to reappear but scarcity still ruled. In the book’s final chapter, aptly titled “Putin on the Ritz,” the author sees through a 21st century lens the Moscow life of her childhood in all its small pleasures and shortcomings.
Von Bremzen and her mother Larissa emigrated to the U.S. in 1974, but not before Anya had a chance to experience both the deprivations and the decadence of Soviet food distribution, depending on one’s connections and/or status as nomenklatura (Communist party appointees). Von Bremzen’s writing is at times dense yet always saturated with flavorful layers, much like the kulebiaka, or fish pie, which dominates much of the first chapter with tales of its preparation. At the end are recipes for some of the dishes discussed, one from each decade, so readers can experience firsthand a taste of history. Russophiles and foodies alike shouldn’t miss this hidden gem which shows how a country’s complex history and its food are intricately connected, and as a result become equally important to its cultural identity.