I Was Better Last Night 

A black and white photo of Harvey Fierstein from below, as he looks down into the camera whild having his hands against one side of his face.

by Cherise T.

Harvey Fierstein, I beg to differ with your memoir title, I Was Better Last Night. Although I’ve never had the privilege of experiencing one of your shows two nights in a row, every time I have seen you, the performance has been remarkably bodacious and sincere, distinctive and familiar. You immerse the audience in worlds we’ve never seen before, drawing us in even deeper with elements resonating from our own lives. How could you have been even better? 

I Was Better Last Night opens a treasure trove of stories for theater lovers. Did you know that Disney thought Newsies could never be a hit musical? That the original producers of 1983’s La Cage aux Folles vehemently nixed the gay couple’s kiss? That beloved actress Estelle Getty of The Golden Girls first found fame at age 59 in Torch Song Trilogy, starring in a role written just for her? Brimming with mostly loving, but occasionally scathing, Broadway backstage tales, Fierstein’s memoir exposes the details of show creation. We learn his insights into what worked and what didn’t and how the cast and creative crew contribute to the final product. We hear juicy tales of relationships gained and broken, Tonys won and lost, musicals with multiple revivals and singular flops. 

As an actor, playwright, screenwriter, and proudly out gay icon, Fierstein has a lifetime of stories to tell, and the book truly spans his whole life. The memoir maintains a captivating balance between the personal and the professional. Some of the most poignant chapters in the book explore his evolving sexual identity and the context in which he places his own growth as a queer man within the current social environment. He spares few details when writing about New York City’s bathhouses and the HIV/AIDs epidemic. 

Fierstein has won many awards and garnered extensive fame for his contributions to Mrs. Doubtfire, Hairspray, Fiddler on the Roof, La Cage Aux Folles, and Torch Song Trilogy, to name a few. It’s fascinating to learn how he credits his becoming a successful performer and writer to character, lucky timing, supportive mentors, and determination. In another life, he would now be a retired public school art teacher. 

The book is available in print and electronic formats. Consider the audiobook version, if you enjoy Fierstein’s distinctive gravel-filled Brooklyn accent as much as I do. Describing the creation of the musical Kinky Boots, for example, he does a spot-on impersonation of Cyndi Lauper, the first solo woman to win a Tony for best original musical score. Offering lyrics he’s sung and lines he’s written, Fierstein is a compelling author-narrator, adding an additional layer of insight into his creative life. His self-deprecating sense of humor really shines. For the wonderful photographs, check out the print version as well. 

And the title? Yes, Fierstein seems to have the ego we associate with stars. There’s no doubt he believes in himself and the strength of his work, but like the final principle of Lola’s six–step program in Kinky Boots, “You change the world when you change your mind.” He describes times he could have done better, admits missteps, and encourages everyone to open their minds and hearts. 

Cherise Tasker is an Adult Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch. When not immersed in literary fiction, Cherise can be found singing along to musical theater soundtracks. 

The Hawk’s Way by Sy Montgomery

The book cover depicts a Harris hawk perched on a branch and leaning forward as if about to take flight.

By Julie F.

I’m always thrilled to find a slim work of nonfiction that nonetheless packs a big punch. New Hampshire author and naturalist Sy Montgomery provides just that in her 79-page volume, The Hawk’s Way: Encounters with Fierce Beauty, a concise but wondrous celebration of raptors and their impact on her life. Accompanied by the stunning photography of artist Tianne Strombeck (see her wildlife photography galleries here), Montgomery’s story of her journey from hunting skeptic to passionate advocate for birds of prey will thrill any nature lover, or for that matter, any casual nonfiction reader.

It all begins with a visit to master falconer Nancy Cowan and a four-year-old Harris’s hawk named Jazz. Nancy warns Sy about Jazz – her unwillingness to cooperate, her feisty nature, and of course the fact that this easily provoked species can tear skin and pierce to the bones with their fierce talons – and yet, Sy is smitten: “I know I don’t matter to her at all. Yet, to me, she is everything” (16). As we see the progression of Sy’s work with Jazz and Cowan’s other raptors, we learn tidbits about the language, history, and specialized gear of falconry, all of which fascinates and contributes to our understanding of their bond. Yet, as interesting as these facts are, Montgomery confesses that, “From falconry I want only one thing: to get closer to birds of prey. Majestic, graceful, strong, big, brave, and smart: Who would not hunger for such company” (24)?

As Montgomery learns more about bird anatomy and vision, methods of catching a wild hawk to train, and even what it means for a hunting dog to “get birdy,” the reader is pulled along on her intellectual, ethical, and emotional journey. She questions whether she is really cut out to be a falconer; after all, she is told time and again by experts that the hawks will kill her precious domesticated chickens – no holds barred, no quarter given. The book is a compassionate, compelling, but stark look at the lives of these fierce creatures – sometimes bloody and violent, sometimes full of soaring elevation and elation, always and forever wild.

Sy Montgomery is the author of thirty-three books of nonfiction for both children and adults, including The Good Good Pig, How To Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals, and The Soul of an Octopus, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Described as “equal parts poet and scientist” by The New York Times, she also scripted and narrated the National Geographic documentary based on her book Spell of the Tiger. The Hawk’s Way is also available as an e-audiobook from Libby/OverDrive. I listened to Montgomery’s narration as I read along, and the enthusiasm for her subject conveyed in her voice made this a wonderful listen.

Julie is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch who finds her work as co-editor of Chapter Chats very rewarding. She loves gardening, birds, crime fiction, all kinds of music, and the great outdoors.

Mean Baby by Selma Blair

The picture shows the book on a marble-topped table. The cover is a picture of author Selma Blair, her hands on the top of her head, looking skyward.

by Carmen J.

You may know the actress Selma Blair from her notorious same-sex kiss in Cruel Intentions or her frenemy role in Legally 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.  

Mean Baby is available from HCLS in print and large print, and as an e-book and an e-audiobook from Libby/Overdrive.

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.

Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land

The book cover shows a pair of dirty yellow work gloves, lying one on top of the other.

By Kimberly J.

In this autobiography, journalist Stephanie Land details the hardships and trials she endured during her daughter’s first years. Driven into homelessness due in part to an abusive partner, an abusive father, and an absent mother, Land is truly on her own. Her family and friends have nothing to give, leaving her alone to survive. People from all walks of life will relate to her fighting spirit and resiliency.

This story is so compelling because it is so personal. This eye-opening tale gives us a glimpse into the everyday struggle of one woman fighting for a life for herself and her daughter. Reading from her point of view gave me insight into the scorn and derision felt by the working poor. The tension and anxiety Land experienced were palpable as she struggled to balance 15 types of assistance in order to simply survive.

It is a hard and heavy subject – Land works as a maid cleaning houses in order to make ends meet. The contrast of being surrounded by the trappings of the upper middle class while she is struggling to feed herself is heart-rending. This position of servitude leaves her feeling dehumanized and “othered” more often than not. When she encounters the rare client that treats her like a person, she is hungry for even the smallest acts of compassion – a note, a conversation, a smile.

This book raises important questions – How do we treat people who are performing manual labor? How do people experiencing homelessness and/or poverty fit into our society? What makes a home? How can you keep going even when hope feels impossible?

Maid is a New York Times bestseller and has been converted into a Netflix series. It is available in print, ebook, and eaudiobook from HCLS.

Kimberly J is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the HCLS Glenwood Branch. She enjoys reading, photography, creating, crafting, and baking.

Cartoons and Memoirs with Alison Bechdel

by Holly L.

If you don’t think you know Alison Bechdel, cartoonist extraordinaire whose 2006 graphic novel Fun Home was adapted as a Broadway musical, you may have heard of the Bechdel test. The Bechdel test, a tool for evaluating the depiction of women in film (though the test can be applied to literature as well), has its origins in The Rule, a 1985 strip of her long-running comic Dykes to Watch Out For. In response to being asked to go see a movie, a character explains her “rule” about movies having to meet three requirements: 1) it has to have at least two women in it who 2) talk to each other about 3) something besides a man. Bechdel has expressed surprise at the cultural influence of something that came about when she was out of ideas for her strip and heard her friend Liz Wallace mention her own version of the “rule.”

“The only movie my friend could go see was Alien, because the two women talk to each other about the monster. But somehow young feminist film students found this old cartoon and resurrected it in the Internet era and now it’s this weird thing. People actually use it to analyze films to see whether or not they pass that test. Still … surprisingly few films actually pass it.”

Bechdel got her start as a professional comic artist in June 1983 when WomaNews, a New York-based feminist newspaper, published her first strip. Her single panel art evolved into multi-panel strips and she was later picked up by several national alternative and gay weekly papers. Dykes to Watch Out For (DTWOF) chronicled the everyday lives and misadventures of lesbians in a mid-size American city. Bechdel referred to it as “half op-ed column and half endless serialized Victorian novel.”

Bechdel, who identifies as a lesbian since coming out at age 19, may be best known for her graphic novel memoirs that explore sexuality, identity, and familial relationships. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic was published two years before DTWOF ended its run in 2008. This richly-detailed, poignant, and humorous autobiography delves into Bechdel’s past as the daughter of Bruce Bechdel, a closeted gay funeral home director.

A green tinted illustration show a table with a black and white family portrait. Title appears in yellow lettering

The details of the author’s youth are as carefully rendered as the family’s gothic revival house was painstakingly restored by her father, an aesthete who, “treated his furniture like children, and his children like furniture.” Bechdel compares her late father to F. Scott Fitzgerald, an author he revered, and the entire novel is peppered with literary allusions, which is fitting considering both her mother and father were teachers and voracious readers.

As Bechdel reflects on her relationship with her late father, I was moved by her ability to render him with sympathy despite his many flaws as a parent. I’ve heard some refer to Fun Home as a “gateway” graphic novel, as its themes of family and identity and its tender, comic narrative have a universal appeal, making it accessible to readers who may be new to the form.

Are You My Mother?: a Comic Drama was published in 2012 and was the first full length work of Bechdel’s that I read. Pregnant with my first child at the time, I was especially drawn to this fascinating portrait of Bechdel’s complicated relationship with her mother. A formidable figure, Bechdel’s mother kept her daughter at a distance, and stopped touching or kissing her good-night at the age of seven.

The red tinted cover includes a vanity handheld mirror, a lipstick tube, bed, and a black and white photograph. The title appears

A frustrated artist stuck in a deeply unhappy marriage, Helen Bechdel might be what English pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott called a “good enough mother”- a mother who, in her imperfection, gives her child space to grow and develop independently of her. Bechdel spends quite a bit of ink on Winnicott and his object-relations theory, and on psychoanalytic therapy, where Bechdel has spent many hours over the years. In addition to examining her intense relationship with her mother, she also chronicles her romantic relationships with women over the years as a self-confessed “serial monogamist.”

I think that many readers will sympathize, as I did, with Bechdel’s simultaneous desire to please her mother while also trying to establish her own creative identity. A scene that I found especially touching involved Bechdel’s mother taking dictation from a young Bechdel, as she narrated the events of her day: a mother-daughter diary collaboration as well as a foreshadowing of the years of therapy to come in Bechdel’s future.

Bechdel’s most recent graphic memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, came out in 2021 and focuses on the author’s lifelong obsession with working out.

Illustration of a person doing silly stretches with a bike pump and skis behind them.

Starting with a childhood preoccupation with the Charles Atlas bodybuilding ads she saw in her comic books, Bechdel became fixated on exercise as a means of quieting her anxious brain and controlling, and even transcending, her physical form. Although I was a bit skeptical when I first heard the subject of the book, any misgivings were laid to rest as I quickly became absorbed by the narrative, following Bechdel on a diverse tour that visits Jack Kerouac and the Beats, the Romantic poets, and Transcendentalist thinkers, along with figures from Bechdel’s life.

On this journey, Bechdel uses exercise to explore bigger subjects, digging at the question of why we exercise, which can be extended to why we do anything. Organized by decade, this is a book of substance and plenty of style, with Bechdel’s trademark precise drawings enlivened by her partner artist Holly Rae Taylor’s brushstrokes of vivid color. As much as I loved her previous two memoirs, they dealt with pretty heavy subjects, and The Secret to Superhuman Strength, while just as thoughtfully crafted as any of her other works, is a bit lighter, making it a perfect candidate for a great summer read.

Holly is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Miller Branch. She enjoys knitting, preferably with a strong cup of tea and Downton Abbey in the queue.

Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe

The image shows two characters as mirror images of one another , one in yellow shorts with no shirt and arms outstretched, the other in a blue shirt and blue rolled-up pants, clutching the gem of the pants. Both are up to mid-calf in blue-green water; the "reflected" person has a green-gold forest in the background.

By Ash B. 

When I started working here at the library, my favorite section to get acquainted with was the graphic novel section. One reason for this was the rate at which I could find LGBTQ representation; I’ve joked with friends and colleagues that sometimes I feel I have a ‘sixth sense’ for intuitively knowing whether an artist is queer based on their art style or the design of the book’s cover.  

Sometimes there are subtle clues about the book’s content, and sometimes there is something overtly LGBTQ-related about the cover, title, or summary. Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe (pronouns: e/em/eir) falls into the latter category on all counts. As soon as I heard the title alone, I knew I needed to read it. 

Gender Queer is a memoir, formatted as a graphic novel, that recounts Kobabe’s experiences regarding gender and sexuality throughout eir childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. At its core, it is a book that addresses what it means, in Kobabe’s personal experience, to be nonbinary, queer, and asexual. As e explains in a Washington Post op-ed, Kobabe primarily wrote this as a way of explaining eir nonbinary identity to eir parents and extended family. However, Kobabe’s story has reached much farther than that, garnering praise from readers, reviewers, and the American Library Association (ALA). 

In my opinion, as a nonbinary reader, Gender Queer is so remarkable because there is nothing else quite like it. Through a talented combination of text and illustration, Kobabe addresses complex intersections of gender and sexuality with such specificity that I was honestly blown away. Never before I had felt so seen and understood by a piece of media. One of my favorite passages addresses the struggle to achieve a balance of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ gender expression when society is set on placing you on one side of the gender binary. I truly don’t have the words to fully express how meaningful this is to me… so let me share a brief anecdote instead: 

Around the time I was re-reading the book to prepare for this review, one of my (fellow nonbinary) friends texted me regarding a conflict they felt over an article of clothing they wanted to buy because they were concerned it would be read as ‘too feminine.’ Within our text conversation, I sent my friend two panels from the book.  

My friend’s response? They related so much that they started crying in the bathroom on their lunch break at work.

Representation matters. 

Even for those of us within the LGBTQ community who have come to terms with our identities, have community support, and hold privilege (whether it be whiteness, financial stability, ability, etc.) that improves our overall life outcomes – it is still hard to exist in a heteronormative society structured around the gender binary. At best, it is exhausting and invalidating, which still takes a hit to one’s mental health.  

Now imagine being a young person who lacks community support, lacks independence, and is questioning or struggling with accepting their identity. 

Books such as Gender Queer not only educate – they provide invaluable support to queer, trans, and questioning readers who need to see affirming, accurate, and nuanced representation. When we say these books can be a lifeline for readers, that’s not an empty statement; suicidality is significantly higher amongst LGBTQ youth, especially those who are trans, in comparison to their non-LGBTQ counterparts. 

Unfortunately, in the past year there has been a national surge – including in Howard County – in attempted censorship of LGBTQ books in school classrooms and media centers. Gender Queer has been one of the most controversial titles due to its frank discussion of (queer) sexuality and, to a lesser extent, gender dysphoria.  

This trend – the challenging and banning of books that contain content regarding sex, LGBTQ identity, or both – is not new. What is new is the influential role of social media and the internet, which allows far-reaching communication between book challengers and can create even more oppositional fervor towards the books that they have deemed “obscene,” “pornographic,” and so on. 

One of the problems with this overall pattern, however, is it increases divisiveness in public discourse. Parents, students, educators, librarians, and policymakers need to discuss these topics with the nuance, open-mindedness, and compassion necessary to truly educate and uplift youth. Instead, we are faced with a proliferation of outrage that doesn’t “protect” anyone – least of all LGBTQ youth. 

Some opponents are unapologetic in their homophobic and transphobic motivations, quite literally demonizing anything they hear is LGBTQ-related. (Do I need to explain further why these messages are extremely harmful to LGBTQ folks?) Other opponents claim they have no problem with queer-affirming books, but take issue with the books that contain passages regarding sex. I can understand where these folks are coming from – however, I would push back against the idea that teens need to be shielded from the type of “sexual content” that is in Gender Queer. This book isn’t meant to titillate – it is meant to inform, based on Kobabe’s own experiences of adolescence and young adulthood. 

So, before jumping to the conclusion that this book is inappropriate for high schoolers, consider Kobabe’s perspective: 

“It’s very hard to hear people say ‘This book is not appropriate to young people’ when it’s like, I was a young person for whom this book would have been not only appropriate, but so, so necessary. There are a lot of people who are questioning their gender, questioning their sexuality and having a real hard time finding honest accounts of somebody else on the same journey. There are people for whom this is vital and for whom this could maybe even be lifesaving.” 

Kobabe’s work gives language to some of the complexities that lie at the intersections of gender and sexuality. And with representation of asexuality and nonbinary genders still in short supply, Gender Queer is a much-needed addition. Mainstream narratives about LGBT people in the past few decades have often represented people who have “always known” they were transgender or “knew since they were three years old” that they were gay. But many of us do not have that experience. Many of us are in the dark about our true selves, until someone shines a light on all the possibilities of what queer existence can look like. Gender Queer has and will continue to have that positive impact on teens and adults alike.  

I hope this review will encourage you to see the value in this book for a variety of readers, LGBTQ or not. I urge you to read the book for yourself – and truly reflect on it. Print copies of Gender Queer: A Memoir can be requested to borrow here.  

Want to skip the waitlist? Your HCLS account also grants you access to the eBook version of Gender Queer on hoopla, a platform that allows titles to be streamed immediately or downloaded to devices for offline enjoyment later. For assistance with hoopla, view the tutorial on our website, visit your local branch, or reach out to us with your questions. 

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. This time of year, they are especially fond of reading while cuddling with their golden retriever and sipping hot cocoa or tea.

Book Discussion: Night by Elie Wiesel

The cover of the book shows a hazy, abstract blue-grey background, with the author's name and "Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize" on a beige field in the middle, with a strand of barbed wire running between.

by Rabbi Fuller

Elie Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor in addition to a prolific author and Nobel laureate. Reading Night for the second time (I first read it many moons ago when I was in college) reminded me both of the horrific things he and his fellow prisoners suffered at the hands of the Nazis during World War II, and of that lesson from The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. How much of Wiesel’s memoir could I trust? I learned from reading The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe that everyone’s memory of events is imperfect. How does that help or hinder us from learning about a Nobel Prize winner and human rights advocate’s experience when we read his first book, Night

As we just recently passed the 80th anniversary of America’s entrance into that war on December 7, 1941, we are closer and closer to the time when no eyewitnesses to the Holocaust will be alive anymore. Thankfully, there is now an entire genre of books detailing and remembering the experiences of many survivors of the Holocaust. Though the stories are all different, the one theme that comes through almost all of them is the incomprehensible brutality and inhumanity the Germans perpetrated on 6 million Jews simply because they were Jewish, and countless others for being gay, Roma, communists, or anything else the Nazis didn’t like. 

Night is a symbol of all the darkness that the victims of the Holocaust felt. The fear, the hunger, the horrid conditions, the not knowing what any minute or hour or day might bring. The lack of hope, and the lack of trust even in your fellow prisoners. In some ways, it’s amazing that any of them survived. 

But in Wiesel’s life, I think that Night represents something else as well – his doubt of his faith. Wiesel makes it clear that he grew up as a religious Jew in Sighet, Romania, and that family and religion were two of the most important things to him. Yet as he witnessed the Holocaust, his faith began to leave him. Those who are avid fans of his writings will find these struggles throughout many of his books, and how he resolves it as well. But in Night, he makes clear how his faith is failing in a particularly gruesome scene. The Nazis have just hanged three victims, one of them just a boy (for those of you who wonder why, does it matter? That’s the kind of “night” all the prisoners had to deal with). The two older men die quickly from asphyxiation, but the boy, who doesn’t weigh much, dangles from his noose for a while before finally succumbing. Wiesel reports, “Behind me, I heard the same man asking “For God’s sake, where is God?” And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…” 

After working through his theological crisis, Wiesel went on to become a professor, a father, and a strong voice and advocate for human rights everywhere. That’s what earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, “for being a messenger to mankind: his message is one of peace, atonement and dignity.” The lesson we should all take from this is that no matter the hardships we may face, or how palpable the darkness we feel may seem, we can overcome and do great things with our lives. 

Holocaust Remembrance Day Book Group is discussing Night by Elie Wiesel, with the conversation led by Rabbi Fuller. Join us online January 27 at 6:30 pm. Register.

Rabbi Gordon Fuller is an independently ordained rabbi who grew up in Detroit but has lived in many other places. He moved to Columbia, MD in 2015 to be near children and grandchildren.

Rabbi Gordy worked in Jewish education for 20+ years before being ordained and has co-authored two books. He is as passionate about pluralism and the environment as he is about his family and the Jewish peoplehood.

Listening List: Six Nonfiction Titles with Great Audiobooks

by Rebecca W.

A plain blue-green background shows golden cracks, which frame the text "Know My Name: A memoir. Chanel Miller. Read by Author"

Know My Name by Chanel Miller
Read by the author
Available through: Overdrive/Libby

In 2018, a victim impact statement, written by “Emily Doe”, was posted on Buzzfeed where it instantly went viral. Chanel Miller wrote the statement during the sexual assault case against Brock Turner. Turner, found guilty of sexually assaulting Miller on Stanford’s campus, was sentenced to only six-months in county prison. In her book, Know My Name, Miller claims authorship of the impact statement and expands on the experience of sexual assault and navigating our justice system.

Why choose the audiobook?

In a review of the book in The Atlantic, Megan Garber wrote a statement that resonates with my experience reading this book; “Know My Name is difficult to read in part because it is beautiful to read.” Miller uses her talent as a writer to show the reader her feelings, her reactions, and her experiences during the aftermath of the assault. From the title the reader is introduced to a major theme of this book, authorship and identity. For me, listening to Miller read this book added to the meaning of that theme.

A woamn walks past a wall painted with an image of the author against a blue background.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Read by the author
Available through: Audiobook on CD

Daily Show host Trevor Noah recounts his childhood growing up in South Africa during apartheid, then post-apartheid. Born in 1984 to a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss-German father, Noah’s conception was in violation of a number of laws at the time, giving name to his memoir’s title Born a Crime. While this book is wholly focused on Noah’s experience growing up in South Africa, it is also largely about the close relationship between him and his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo.

Why choose the audiobook?

If you’re like me and have fully embraced the internet age, you may have seen “CD only” and already moved onto the next item on the list. But I’m telling you, it’s worth it. Simply put, Noah made a name for himself as a comedian. He not only brought this background into the writing of this book, but the narration. If you could even call it narration. I would say it’s more of an all-out performance. So, see if you can find that CD player in your car and check this one out, it’s a must-listen.

You see a large sharp wooden paencil, where the colors also create an image of a figure silhouetted in mountains.

Educated by Tara Westover
Read by the author
Available through: Overdrive/Libby, Cloud Library, Audiobook on CD

In her memoir, Tara Westover recounts her journey from childhood, the youngest of seven children raised by survivalist parents, to a Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge University. Growing up in southeastern Idaho, Tara’s world was built around extreme political views, religious ideology, and physical violence. Lacking any formal education, Westover was seventeen the first time she stepped into a classroom. While attending college, Westover studied history where she learned, for the first time, of events such as the Holocaust and the Civil Rights movement. Throughout her book, Westover examines the relationships between her upbringing and family, and her growing perspective achieved through education.

Why choose the audiobook?

I am sure there are a good chunk of you who have already read Educated. But if you are one of the lucky few who haven’t, you should absolutely pick up the audiobook. Simply put, Westover is not only a remarkable writer, but a talented speaker. While the story she tells is full of extremist ideology and paranoia-fueled thought patterns, Westover reads her memoir with a calmness and clarity that highlights the themes of learning and perspective found throughout her book.

A small figure pushes a large peach up a steep black slope. The background is a pale peach and the river and hillsides are in grey

Eat a Peach by David Chang
Read by the author
Available through: OverDrive/Libby

David Chang, professional/celebrity chef and owner of the popular restaurant Momufuku (among many more), set out to write a book about the business of cooking, and maybe throw in a recipe or two. Well, this is not that book. Though he may have fought it, this is a memoir; covering Chang’s rise to fame, his Asian-American identity, and his experience with bi-polar disorder. Chang shares his triumphs as a chef in a way that entangles all three of these areas, telling the good, the not-so-good, and the regrettable. But don’t worry, you still get to hear all about some delicious food.

Why choose the audiobook?

Okay, you’ve probably caught on to my formula by now: memoir + read by the author = going on the list. What can I say. When you have an author that can read their own work (and that is not always the case) it just works so well! Chang’s reading of this book is so conversational, full of honesty, humor, and not-so-occasional swearing.

The silhouette of Buzz Lightyear is rim lighted against a red background. He has a conducting baton in his right hand.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace
Read by: Peter Altschuler
Available through: Overdrive/Libby, Audiobook on CD

If you’re thinking the only reason this book made the list is because I am a huge fan of Pixar… well you’re not totally wrong. But the main reason I recommend this book is how well author Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, communicates his core message of how to balance creativity and business. In the book, Catmull chronicles his journey from a computer science student to creating the first computer-animated feature film, and the success that followed. In each stage of Pixar’s journey Catmull explains how he was able to manage a team effectively, and sometimes not effectively, while fueling their creativity. Now I know what you’re thinking, how hard can it be to spark creativity in an animation studio? But when you really look at the process of animation, there is a lot of repetitive, monotonous work… seeing any similarities to other jobs out there? I really enjoyed hearing how Catmull identifies creative drain and the steps he takes to work through it.

Why choose the audiobook?

With this story being largely a Pixar story, I was expecting a tone fitting to the brand. Altschuler delivered. The narration of this book hit the same notes of inspiration and excitement that are characteristic of Pixar’s animations, making Altschuler’s narration one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book.

A beige cover features a smudged fingerprint dotting the "i" in Sapiens.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Read by: Derek Perkins
Available through: Overdrive/Libby, Audiobook on CD

Can you fit the entirety of human history into 15 hours? Well, no. But Yuval Noah Harari does a pretty good job at summarizing it in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Breaking his book into three main revolutions (cognitive, agricultural, and scientific), Harari spans the entirety of homo sapiens’ existence, looking at it through a historical, biological, and, at times, philosophical lens. Harari begins his book about 70,000 years ago and ends in modern day – predicting what will become of the last human species. While I really enjoyed Harari’s take on this subject, I will preface this suggestion with the fact that the author does make some large generalizations in this book. If a particular subject in this book sparks your interest, I highly suggest looking deeper into it. Again, the entirety of human history in one book is a tall order, but Sapiens is a fantastic jumping-off point.

Why choose the audiobook?

If you haven’t already noticed, the majority of this list is made up of biographical works. I tend to lean this way when choosing nonfiction books to listen to because their storytelling structure usually translates to great audio. However, I really wanted to get my hands on this book and the hold list for the audiobook was shorter (who else has been there?). Though it wasn’t my first choice, I really enjoyed the audio version. When I first started it, I found myself missing the ability to re-read that traditional book format allows. However, once I accepted the fact that I wouldn’t be turning back any pages, I found the book really enjoyable. The writing does an excellent job at allowing the reader to absorb a lot of information, while still maintaining an easy-to-follow structure. So, if you are looking for an audiobook, but are more interested in the give-the-facts-and-figures type of book, Sapiens would be a great one to try.

Becky is an Adult Instructor and Research Specialist at the HCLS East Columbia Branch who enjoys art and everything science.

Brat: An ’80s story

Black and white photo of Andrew McCarthy in a tweed jacket, loosening a skinny tie.

by Eric B.

I’d completely agree with the author Jay McInerney’s (Bright Lights, Big City) assessment on the back jacket cover of Brat: An ’80s Story

“My only quibble with this absorbing, thoughtful, and sometimes painfully honest memoir is with the title; McCarthy is anything but a brat. He is certainly an unlikely movie star, and the story of how this diffident and insecure young man found himself at the center of the culture in the 1980s—and then decided to walk away from it all—makes for a fascinating read.”

Perhaps you’ve seen Andrew McCarthy on the talk show circuit, or just remember him from his 80s films. I am a fan of his work in Less than ZeroPretty in Pink, and St Elmo’s Fire. Moreover, and you may scoff, but I do realize the genius that is found in Weekend at Bernie’s. I’m a fan of McCarthy’s acting, and perhaps his general on-screen demeanor in these “period pieces.” He played thoughtful, “emo” characters before it was nearly a trope in myriad indie films (to be sure, I still love the sensitive emo characters). For example, I’d contend that Timothy Chalamet is successful in a way I’m not sure was possible in the recent past with more rigid gender roles.

Several years ago, I read some of McCarthy’s travel writing and liked his style. The piece was about Los Angeles and was personal for him, and he spiced it up with personal anecdotes about his memories. For fans of 80’s films and McCarthy, Brat is like a greatest hits collection.  

The book opens with him abruptly leaving the Pretty in Pink Hollywood premiere to slam drinks at the bar across the street. McCarthy briefly gets into his middle-class upbringing, childhood, his time at NYU studying acting, before landing his first role and dropping out to pursue Hollywood acting full time. The remainder of the book is about the roles and the experience of his meteoric rise in Hollywood during the decade. McCarthy lived in New York for the duration of his Hollywood fame, which I found surprising, but makes sense now. He laments the fact that he didn’t pursue the theater, instead of accepting some of the roles he was offered. 

He includes some interesting stories about his experiences in Hollywood and some of the characters he encountered. I would not describe this as a tell-all book, but rather a memoir of a person experiencing and observing the strange world of American film and celebrity but never really feeling terribly comfortable in it. John Hughes described him as a “wimp,” which seems like a nasty thing to say. His experience at a Paramount anniversary party with Hollywood legends and young up and comers, where he realizes he could not and had no desire to be Tom Cruise, is hilarious because we all know how their respective careers progressed. McCarthy includes many pictures, and this one of the entire group at the Paramount party is telling. 

Artists who have a tough time with the nature of celebrity interest me generally. I appreciate what it’s like to want to be noticed, appreciated, and recognized, but then not wanting all that attention. I’m terrified of someone trying to take my picture as I try to live my daily life. McCarthy has accepted his status as an 80s star and a member of the “brat pack,” even though this was a media term. He’s not seen some of these people since the respective films were completed.  

If you’re a fan of so-called “brat pack” films, or 80s movies, John Hughes films, or just looking for a book not concerning current affairs, it’s a pretty good read. I acknowledge my bias on this subject, but I enjoy McCarthy’s writing style and his reflective and analytical nature. Perhaps this comes through in his acting?  Andrew McCarthy does seem like someone I’d know, or someone I’d like, but perhaps this is how celebrity works. Briefly reflecting on his days at NYU, McCarthy said that after class he’d hang out in the “post-bohemian cross culture” of Washington Square Park, observe all the interesting people, buy two joints off a Rastafarian for a buck apiece, then go home and watch the Rockford Files. This sounds like a nice afternoon to me, or perhaps a celebrity dream date.  

Also available as an eBook and eAudiobook via OverDrive/Libby.

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the Elkridge branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

Crying in H Mart

Against a red background, two sets of chopsticks hold noodles in long swoop that looks like an H.

by Ben H.

I’d be remiss to write about Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart without mentioning Psychpomp, the 2016 Japanese Breakfast album that served as a preview for the memoir that debuted at No. 2 on The New York Times‘ best sellers List. Passages describing the creation of the album are brief, but lyrics are scattered throughout the memoir like Easter eggs.  

Zauner recorded the album in Eugene in the months after her mother died. Zauner’s mother is on the album cover, reaching toward the camera. It’s a rad shoegaze album full of great lyrics, and it’s my 2-year-old daughter’s favorite album. Kiki’s been listening to it since she was born. She points to this album cover when she wants to bop: 

Two Asian woman look down into the camera, one reaching out. They are under a blue sky and wind is blowing their hair.

Zauner, who was born in Seoul; raised in Eugene, Oregon; went to school in Philadelphia; and now lives in Brooklyn has a real Maryland vibe (whatever that means). Maybe it’s just me, but I felt close to Zauner after reading her book. It’s honest and intimate (I know that’s a book cover cliché and I still can’t help myself). 

The memoir is incredible. Her mom was only 56 when she died, and Zauner had a complicated relationship with her. She illustrates their relationship by detailing a series of events from childhood conversations to her mom’s final word. The book is only around 250 pages, but Zauner uses anecdotes and conversations like a pointillist uses points to create a full portrait. Her mother is down-to-earth, glamorous, pragmatic, whimsical, frustrating, mysterious, and lovely.  

Zauner writes about eating food, making food, storing food, watching videos of other people make food (Maangchi gets her own chapter), and it’s all great. The passage where she makes her first real batch of kimchi is one of my favorites. Food is the constant in her relationship with her parents: “What they lacked in high culture, they made up for by spending their hard-earned money on the finest of delicacies. My childhood was rich with flavor – blood sausage, fish intestines, caviar. They loved good food, to make it, to seek it, to share it, and I was an honorary guest at their table.” 

After her mother’s cancer diagnosis, her mental fantasies to cure her mom are heartbreaking. We’ve all tried to barter with the universe or with God to get something, and in that vein, Zauner writes, “I spent an hour on the treadmill. In my head I played a game with the numbers. I thought to myself, if I run at eight for another minute, the chemo will work. If I hit five miles in half an hour she’ll be cured.”  

The details of Zauner’s childhood in Eugene and her visits with family in Seoul are highlights, but I found myself returning to the intimate moments between Zauner and her mother. Crying in H Mart is officially going to be a movie; I can’t wait for the screen adaptation, but I think it’s going to be a tearjerker. 

You can place the book on hold, as many other folks want to read it right now, but it’s worth the wait. Also available as an eBook and eAudiobook.

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).