Read While Isolated

The cover depicts an open pocket watch against a black cloth background with small, glowing astrological symbols.

by Piyali C.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I found it difficult to focus on books. It seemed like Emily St. John Mandel’s dystopian novel, Station Eleven was playing out right in front of me. However, when physical distancing became a part of our daily routine, I took to reading so I could escape to other worlds created by authors. The books below are some of the ones that I truly enjoyed as I read them during isolation, borrowed from Howard County Library System.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue (available in print, ebook, eaudiobook): A fascinating story of nurse Julia Powers, who works in the maternity ward of a hospital in war- and flu-ravaged Dublin in 1918. She takes care of expectant mothers fallen ill with the raging Spanish flu. With the help of a rebel woman doctor and a young orphaned woman, Nurse Powers tends to the needs of the quarantined pregnant women in her care to the best of her ability under the circumstances.

The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate: (available in print, ebook, eaudiobook) Told in the alternating voices of Hannie, a recently freed slave in 1875, and Benedetta Silva, a young new teacher in a tiny town in Louisiana in 1987, this story takes us through the Reconstruction era in America with Hannie, as she travels to Texas with two unwilling companions, Miss Lavinia and Juneau June, in the hope of finding her family members who were sold as slaves in different cities and towns. Benny Silva, while trying to engage her unwilling students in their own history, comes across the story of Hannie’s journey in the library of a run-down plantation house. The discovery of this quest brings forth a fascinating story of freed slaves trying desperately to reconnect with family members lost to slavery in 1870’s America.

The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai (available in print, eaudiobook): Drawn from the author’s own experiences of growing up in postwar Vietnam and from interviewing countless people who lived through the horrors of the Vietnam war, Ngyuen Phan Que Mai writes this amazing story of a family torn apart, not only by the war, but also by the subsequent division between north and south Vietnam. While the story talks about the unbelievable horror that wars inflict on human life, it also sings an ode to indomitable human resilience and a desperate mother’s inexplicable courage and determination to keep her children safe.

A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler (available in print, ebook, eaudiobook): Valerie is a 48-year-old Black woman, a single mom to Xavier, and an ecology professor who nurtures a deep love for plants and trees. Brad Whitman is an entrepreneur who has risen up in wealth and power from humble beginnings. Brad builds a gorgeous house next to Valerie’s and moves in with his wife Julia, step daughter Juniper and daughter Lily. As a relationship starts to build between Valerie and Julia, an incident regarding Valerie’s favorite tree causes a rift between the two families, resulting in a law suit. But Xavier, Valerie’s 18-year-old son, and Juniper, Julia’s 17-year-old daughter, are also building a beautiful relationship. How much acceptance will an interracial relationship receive, not only from society but also from Brad Whitman? Told from the perspective of the neighbors of both Valerie and Brad, this story explores complicated race relations between Black and White, loss of innocence, coming of age, struggles of women, and much more. 

What did you read during isolation? Tell us in the comments.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

What’s Happening in the Enchanted Garden?

Sunflowers against a bright blue sky, with one of two blossoms beginning its end of season fade. A bright yellow goldfinch sits on the stalk.

By Ann H.

While the Enchanted Garden is temporarily closed to visitors and volunteers, it still manages to be a busy place for nature. Last year, the Enchanted Garden became a certified Wildlife Habitat thanks to the work of the Tween Sprouts (an HCLS youth garden club) and a loyal group of student and Master Gardener volunteers. This year it seems chipmunks, bunnies, butterflies, bees, birds, maybe a fox, plus more unseen critters are enjoying the efforts of our two-legged helpers. Let’s take a peek inside.

Birds helped spread sunflower seeds planted by youth gardeners in spring 2019. Come late this summer goldfinches, bees, and butterflies are feasting on their nectar and seeds!

Close up photo shows bright green mint plants that have begun to flower.

Mint must thrive on neglect! Many common herbs like basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary, and lemon balm are members of the hardy mint family. These herbs and more common mints like chocolate and spearmint are providing nectar for our hungry pollinators. Let your mint reach the flowering stage and pollinators will come.

Common milkweed left unchecked has claimed the back corner of the garden. Since it is the host plant of the monarch butterfly and mega food for a variety of pollinators, I’m enjoying its presence and hoping to see monarch caterpillars devouring the leaves any day.

Monarch butterfly rests on flowers of a summersweet plant.

Monarchs have not been plentiful in the Enchanted Garden so far this summer, but a few make a regular appearance. Thank goodness we have enough native perennials like this Summersweet, to help feed them on their journey.

Though the chore list to restore our Enchanted Garden is a tad long, these sights inspire me to persevere. I am grateful for the work of many in past years and truly look forward to the day we can open the gates to all our garden friends, volunteers, and visitors.

Ann is the Enchanted Garden Coordinator and Research Specialist at the Miller Branch. After nearly ten years with HCLS, she still thinks her position is a dream come true.

Plastic Bags Upcycling

by Kimberly J.

many plastic bags
“Many Plastic Bags” by Keng Susumpow is licensed with CC BY 2.0.

In the United States alone, it is estimated that 100 billion plastic bags are consumed each year. I’m guessing that we all have a few extra laying around the house, saved up from the last grocery trip, or hiding in a cupboard or box. Why not try upcycling them? Upcycling is the process of turning trash into treasure. These DIY projects and ideas help to reduce waste by reusing items that are destined for the landfill and transforming them into something new, useful, or beautiful. Two instructors from Howard County Library System have filmed classes for ideas on how to upcycle plastic bags into something useful. They are available on HCLS’s YouTube channel, which is full of On-Demand classes.

In the first video, the Central Branch’s Tamarah Nuttle gives a step-by-step tutorial on how to make plarn. Plarn is a heavy duty plastic yarn that can be created with all types of plastic bags. She demonstrates two methods for transforming them using scissors – creating loops and knotting them together, or making a continuous strip with the bag. The plarn can then be knitted or crocheted for endless practical purposes. Some ideas include rolled mats for the homeless or a sit-upon for camping or outdoor activities. If you’ve got experience with knitting or crocheting, you should check out Tamarah’s plarn tutorial here:

Upcycling Plastic Bags – Making Plarn

Not a knitter? No worries! Another video has been produced by Kimberly J, who is an instructor at the Elkridge Branch’s DIY Educational Center. She too has practical tips on how to upcycle plastic bags. Kimberly’s tutorial involves cutting loops and then braiding the plastic strands into a rope. She then uses this rope to make fun coasters using a hot glue gun. Watch her tutorial using simple steps for this crafty upcycle here: https://youtu.be/utMvzWsoS7s

Looking for more ways to reuse plastic bags? Check out the link below for a list of ideas for your household, home improvement, crafts, and more: https://tinyurl.com/ReusingPlasticBags

Kimberly is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the HCLS Elkridge Branch. She enjoys reading, photography, crafting, and baking.

The Baking Bug

Cover of cookbook features a plum tart with luscious glossy fruit arranged in a swirl on a pastry shell, with a cherry in the middle.

by Kristen B.

My husband has a saying: When the going get tough, the tough bake. It certainly holds true that I have a tendency to stress bake. The precision of measuring and mixing, followed by having a tasty, tangible end product soothes me … as does eating whatever treat now sits on my kitchen counter (alas for the scale). Although I prefer sweet to savory, the occasional loaf of bread or cheesy rolls happens when I have the need to knead. Although I’m a frequent visitor to King Arthur Baking Company for recipes, their tried and true whole grain recipes are also collected in this book.

I like to try new recipes and often browse the cookbook shelves at the library. It’s how I came upon Great Pies & Tarts by Carole Walter, which has yet to disappoint (confession: I bought it). The blueberry pie always wins rave reviews, even if I trash my kitchen making it. This book also has one of the best step-by-step descriptions of how to make a standard American flaky pie crust, complete with photographs. With all the wonderful fresh fruit in season now (visit a Howard County farmers market), it’s the perfect time to make tasty desserts.

American pie crust you ask? As opposed to all the different kinds of pie crusts I’ve learned about on The Great British Baking Show. This show provides the perfect anecdote to anyone’s stress: it’s kind and funny and filled with every kind of baking, from scratch-made puff pastry to savory hot water game pies. If you’ve not visited The Tent, or if you need a little British humor to get you through the week, HCLS has several seasons available on DVD and via hoopla (also available via Netflix). It’s wonderful fun and perhaps a tad inspirational.

If you are already a fan (as clearly I am), and want to spend a little more time with GBBS, you can get the inside scoop from Mary Berry herself. HCLS has several of her cookbooks, and many are available on Overdrive. If you are interested, Chetna, one of the Season 5 contestants, published The Cardamom Trail with her favorite flavors from her home country of India. I found it tricky to follow from an American point of view, but it’s a gorgeous book to drool over (literally).

I wish you Happy Baking … though not tough times to prod you into the kitchen. Check out a cookbook and discover a new favorite treat, and maybe submit photos of your kitchen victories at createdwhileisolated.org, HCLS’ journal of our community’s wonderful creativity.

Kristen B. has worked for HCLS for more than 15 years, and currently hosts the Books on Tap discussion group at Hysteria Brewing Company. She loves reading, Orioles baseball, and baking.

The Library is for Everyone

The picture depicts a group of customers seated in a reading area in the library, studying materials from the collection.

By Piyali C.

The residents of Howard County are blessed to enjoy the diverse cultures and practices that people from countries around the world bring to our community. I was one such immigrant who moved to Howard County from India in 2004 with a 5 year old and a newborn. Every immigrant’s experience is different and unique, but I believe there is one common thread that binds us when we move to a different country: anonymity. Often, this includes loneliness. Leaving behind everything that is familiar, we transplant our lives to a new country for various reasons: job, a better (different) standard of living, education, and/or marriage. As we rebuild our lives in a new land, we embrace new cultures and traditions of our adopted country. Slowly, we build new relationships. Yet at the beginning, we are new, unknown.

My refuge in those uncertain days of transition was the Howard County Library. I was at the library so often and so regularly that the librarians knew me; they knew my name. It may not seem that special to many, yet to me, a new immigrant to the country, just that recognition was huge. As I stood in line to pick up my holds, the Customer Service Specialist brought my held materials without scanning my card. They greeted me by my name and asked me how I was. When I called to sign up my daughter for a class (yes, we had to call in those days), the Children’s Instructors started writing down my daughter’s name before I had to give it to them.

Within the library, I lost my anonymity. It meant a lot. I wonder today if the library worker who helped me, greeted me, took a few minutes to exchange pleasantries with me knew what a difference he or she was making to a newcomer in this country?

I work at the library now. I try my best to remember my feeling of loneliness when I first arrived. And I try to pass the kindness that I received from the librarians forward. I try to be present in the moment, I try to remember the customer’s name and even if I don’t, I always smile and say hello. I know, in my own little way, I am acknowledging a fellow human and who knows, maybe making a little difference in his/her day?

I have many stories to tell about my interactions with new immigrants at the library, but one stands out especially in my mind. A gentleman started frequenting the library a while back. He was from a different country and spoke almost no English. Language, however, did not deter us from having conversations. He managed to convey his needs through smiles, gestures, and pointing, and somehow I understood what he needed that I was able to provide – scissors, directions, printing. One day, he came to the desk, pointed to me, and said “friend.” Then he took a picture of a child from his wallet and showed it to me with a big smile. It was a photo of his child. I cherish that interaction.

Public library workers are not limited to providing information for research; they are also cornerstones of the community. They provide a safe place and create a meaningful impact, sometimes even without realizing it.

This blog post is my ode to librarians and every library worker. Since I am a lover of books as well as libraries, Part Two of my post will be published on Wednesday with a few of my favorite immigrant fiction and nonfiction books that you can borrow from Howard County Library System. Look for it then!

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.