You may know the actress Selma Blair from her notorious same-sex kiss in Cruel Intentions or her frenemy role inLegally Blonde. Most recently, she has been a Multiple Sclerosis (MS) advocate, following her diagnosis in 2018. She is also the creator of an ability-inclusive beauty brand, Guide Beauty. And even if you knew none of this or all of this, her 2022 memoir Mean Baby shows us another side of Selma Blair: gifted writer.
Mean Baby takes us on a sometimes-meandering journey of Blair’s childhood marked by trauma, her adventures in the career pursuit of acting, motherhood challenges, addiction battles, family and romantic relationships, and her MS diagnosis and advocacy. Between the pages, you’ll uncover an impressive writer with an eye for exposing the good, the bad, and the ugly of a life well-lived. Although not a light-hearted read nor a page-turner, you will find Blair’s detailed accounts are those to savor and reflect upon. Mean Baby showcases the life of a survivor, thriver, and fighter with the vivid writing of a robust storyteller.
Carmen J. is a teen instructor at HCLS East Columbia. Among her favorite things are great books, all things 80s, shamelessly watching The Bachelor, gardening, and drinking anything that tastes like coffee.
This book is cathartic. It feels like therapy, except things get way worse, more cringey, and infinitely harder to handle before the payoff hits, and all of the suffering of the previous two-thirds of the book ease into something manageable and even likable.
I will not lie – I judged this book by its cover. There was something about the whimsical nature of the rabbits juxtaposed with the bold cursive proclaiming “everyone in this room will someday be dead” that struck me. What room? The very room I was in? I looked around the adult fiction section of the Savage Branch surreptitiously to see who was nearby. I went back up to the front desk, still holding onto the book, and thinking, “Yeah, actually, that’s true.”
Dear Reader, obviously. This is not a new concept, that everyone, one day, dies. But sometimes, a book like this will bring this into perspective, throw a new light on something you know deep down but don’t consider very often. Emily Austin’s debut novel has moments I’m sure she would categorize as semi-autobiographical (I threw the “semi” in there for her sake, as the main character, Gilda, is truly a disaster), especially since there are moments in the book that I felt were semi-autobiographical and was alarmed at how close Gilda had gotten to my reality.
Emily Austin was not referring to the Savage Branch when she was referencing her room. She was talking about every room Gilda, a noted hypochondriac, ever walked into. Gilda is a twenty-something lesbian and atheist, well known in the emergency room at her local hospital to the point that the janitorial staff know her by name. When we first meet her, she has just been in a car accident and broken her arm, a more physically obvious issue than the anxiety that normally brought her in for a check-up. In an attempt to get her anxiety under control, Gilda follows a flyer for free therapy to a Catholic church, where she meets Father Jeff and accidentally gets a job instead of therapy.
From there, Gilda searches for a missing cat, deals with her younger sibling’s deteriorating mental health, tries to keep her old friends, tries to pretend like she’s Catholic, well-meaningly catfishes an old woman, and tries to solve a murder mystery that might not have involved murder, actually, all while trying to stay afloat.
I read this on a long plane ride, which perhaps compounded the feeling of claustrophobia as Gilda kept tangling herself further and further in her web of lies. It meant that as I was reading an especially cringey section and closed the book for a moment, I couldn’t get up and go for a long walk, like I normally do. I was confined to the middle seat, stuck between two people who were fast asleep and were completely unaware of my distress, and, much like Gilda, all I could do in that moment was keep going. Keep reading and hope that somehow, something was going to get better.
Thank goodness it did, because otherwise, also like Gilda, I probably would have had a nervous breakdown. This book is wholly about the existential dread that comes with being an adult and looking around to realize your general existence is not exactly what you thought it’d be, then figuring out how to cope with that anyway.
I would like to make it very clear that I do, indeed, like this book. I want everyone to read it, despite how difficult it can be. I’ve been recommending it to everyone, describing it as “anxious queer fiction” and asking friends, “Have you ever felt completely directionless and stuck? Well. Gilda will make you feel better. Because she had it worse.” I think if we all take a moment to reflect, the way Gilda does, on the way things are going, we might not always like what we see, but at least we know that we’re not alone in our discontent.
(And if you really want to feel like you’ve got a community, look at the Goodreads reviews for this book here.)
Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is available in print and eBook.
Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She enjoys adding books to her “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for her already.
The old saying goes, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” – but what about a title?
Assassination Classroom is a manga whose title initially repelled me. Even with its bright and simple covers, I looked at a volume, read the back description, and wondered if this was another manga like Death Note. You know, that sort of intensely serious story, full of extended monologues about power and authority, each chapter twisting into the next. Because, after reading Death Note, I was satisfied; I didn’t need another version of that grim-dark comic book. With a title like “Assassination Classroom,” how could this series be anything else?
Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Assassination Classroom has an overall story, yes, and it certainly has intrigue: spies and soldiers working in the shadows of government organizations, with alphabet soup names. But mostly, it’s a gag manga. Yes, the manga about a class of teens attempting to kill their omnipotent teacher is, shockingly, mostly about dumb jokes and silly characters learning about themselves.
One day, the moon suddenly explodes. The culprit makes himself known to the world with a declaration: I will destroy the world in one year’s time, unless I am stopped. He is a monster of superhuman strength and speed, who then demands the world government let him…teach a class of lovable misfits? Did I mention the monster is tentacled, bright yellow, and wears a classical teacher outfit with a robe and square hat?
In another author’s hands, this premise would be deathly serious in tone. But here, author Yusei Matsui takes all that global turmoil and high stakes and makes it super light-hearted. Koro-sensei (a pun on “to kill” in Japanese) has threatened to destroy the world, yes, but he also wants to actually teach these kids – not only about science, math, and literature, but growing up and being a better person, too. And uh, also firearms, subterfuge, and assassination techniques, as he playfully dodges their barrages of bullets, all while offering praise and critiques.
Over 21 volumes, we meet the students and fellow staff at the school, watching them react to this absurdity. Nagisa, the closest thing to a protagonist we have, was bullied for his small frame, but under Koro-sensei’s tutelage, he learns how to accept himself and be confident. Mr. Karasuma is a military officer charged with overseeing Koro-sensei, but as he teaches both gym and martial arts, he softens into a capable instructor. Even Miss Jelavic, a trained assassin disguised as an English instructor, learns that education is a two-way street – as you teach, you learn more than you’d imagine.
Yes, it is corny! Underneath the global plot to destroy a banana-colored octopus, the story is heartfelt and honest. I was fairly effected by the series’ conclusion, despite the tonal clash throughout. The simple and cartoonish art makes the characters more personable, making both the jokes and earnest conversations more meaningful. No one is some “cool” and impervious hero – they’re students and teachers, goofing off while learning how to be better than they are.
In this way, Assassination Classroom resembles a coming-of-age school story, like Ouran High School Host Club (with guns) or Naruto (but far less serious). Its title hides the lightness of plot, how quickly and jovially it moves from school trip to midterms to holiday breaks. The result is a pleasure to read, for its stream of gags and touching moments, for Koro-sensei’s silly faces and his quips of honest wisdom.
Be aware though – this is a title for older teens and adults. The violence of the series is mostly unserious, but the lives of these students and teachers sometimes share the mature themes of the best of Young Adult literature. Bullies, abuse, and family trauma are the dangers in these characters’ lives, not the moon-destroying creature who can move at Mach-20. Still, this is a comedy series first and foremost, and these more “real” themes come forth only in certain moments, and never in a way that I found triggering.
I really enjoyed my time with Assassination Classroom, and was delighted to see how wrong I was to judge this one by its title.
Brown Girl Dreaming may be one of the most beautifully poignant books I’ve ever had the privilege to read. This autobiographical text told in verse relates Woodson’s childhood memories of both Brooklyn, NY and her grandparents’ home in rural South Carolina. I loved the glow of fireflies appearing in the summer dusk, and my heart ached with the understanding that her brother had been lead poisoned by paint in an old tenement. This lovely volume brings us the complete open-hearted bewilderment of a child learning about her world. Dirt driveways and city asphalt combine into a mesmerizing memoir that, while it might be labelled for teens and children, brings truth to all its readers (also available as an eBook and eAudiobook). Woodson received a 2020 MacArthur Fellows Grant.
Woodson continues the coming-of-age theme in her novel, Another Brooklyn. In some ways, I read this as the grown-up version of Brown Girl Dreaming even though its more novel and less memoir. August is returning to Brooklyn for a funeral, and as she travels she can’t help but remember her childhood – the lives of the four fast friends growing up in the 1970s in Brooklyn. The storytelling is still lyrical, if not exactly in verse. The vignettes of the girls’ lives gave me both the feeling of being a young teen again, with all those emotions and upsets, as well as a glimpse of the bigger, national picture that was unfolding around them. Like in the previous book, you get the family nostalgia for an unkind South as well as the hard edges of the northern city. The author does not pull any punches as the girls get older, the problems get thornier, and the solutions ever more doubtful. (also available as an eAudiobook).
These are dreaming books, a little beautiful and a little disturbing, with a haze of remembering to them. But they carry truth, and truth can be hard to hear. Both of these books live on my keeper shelves, and I revisit them periodically. I hope you love them, too.
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.
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.