The Bright Ages

A blue brocade fabric surrounds a parchment-looking rectangle that has title and author in a calligraphic typeface.

by Tony B.

The Bright Ages by Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry tries to shed some metaphorical light into the historical era many have been taught to call “The Dark Ages.” Characterizing early medieval Europe as “Dark” is mostly a reference to the fall of Rome and the end of Pax Romana. The authors challenge that notion, as the Eastern Roman empire in Constantinople was still, at least to its inhabitants, Roman. This particular argument of The Bright Ages is its most well delivered, but from there, things get iffy.

So why Bright over Dark? It is really easy to consign the messier parts of European history – between Enlightenment highs and the idealized Classical – to a lesser status. Instead, by delving more intimately into Medieval lives, you can find the light of stained glass cathedrals, golden relics, and deep acts of charity, but also the hotter fires of politics, rebellion, and warfare. The goal should aim to examine both for a more nuanced, holistic view of an era.

However, The Bright Ages tends to be a bit cherry-picked for the particularly bright or positive aspects of Medieval society. While it is wonderful that examples delineate traditionally marginalized people showing agency and influence, they tend to be the exceptions that prove the rule and not indicative of a broader norm. The author’s favorite example, the remarkable life of Galla Placidia, was just that, remarkable, and not indicative of all medieval women’s sense of agency. This tendency for forced historiography pervades The Bright Ages, though the overall idea of challenging “The Dark Ages” is valid.

One of the book’s main positive points is that it challenges readers to rethink some of the knowledge we take for granted about Europe’s Medieval period. For instance, the early Medieval world was a lot more connected than many assume. As the authors point out, an elephant from the Congo Basin made its way to the court of Charlemagne in Aachen, Germany, as a gift from the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad to the newly crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. However, the authors tend to skip over the bad that comes with the good, like the taking of war slaves or the horrors of the Crusades.

While it toes the line between academic and popular historical writing, the book did itself no favors by omitting notes and sources. Overall, The Bright Ages posits an interesting idea and is one of many voices challenging “The Dark Ages,” but it can be a bit incongruous and sparse on evidence.

Tony is a Customer Service Specialist at Elkridge Branch. He has a degree in history and a perpetual interest in Medieval Europe.

Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad 

by Piyali C.

A woman and her small white dog sit atop a VW camper/bus

“I used to think healing meant ridding the body and heart of anything that hurt. It meant putting your pain behind you, leaving it in the past. But I’m learning that’s not how it works. Healing is figuring out how to coexist with the pain that will always live inside of you, without pretending it isn’t there or allowing it to hijack your day. It is learning to confront ghosts and to carry what lingers. It is learning to embrace the people I love now instead of protecting against a future gutted by their loss.” (P.312) This passage from Suleika Jaouad’s inspiring memoir, Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted, resonated so much with me that I had to write it down. 

At the tender age of twenty-two, when Suleika’s peers were looking forward to their futures, she was diagnosed with leukemia with a 35 percent chance of survival. It started with an intolerable itch all over her body, followed by mouth sores and extreme fatigue. When the diagnosis came down like a heavy anvil, she was, understandably, shattered. Thus began a tremendously painful journey of chemotherapy, clinical trials, a bone marrow transplant, waiting for biopsy results, and interminably long stays at the cancer ward in hospitals. During those stays, Suleika felt she had limited time left on this earth so she decided to do something meaningful while she still could. After her anger at the unfairness of her fate dissipated some, she took up writing blogs geared towards young adults suffering from cancer. The New York Times published her blogs under the column Life, Interrupted. She got an outpouring of letters and emails of support from people from various parts of the country.  

After three years of painful struggle, her cancer finally went into remission. However, Suleika discovered that she did not know how to come back to a life without cancer – the kingdom of healthy people. She found herself at a junction where she needed to relearn how to integrate into regular life again. Such a close brush with her mortality made her aware that life is much more than what she had envisioned at twenty-two, before she got sick. Like any young adult, Suleika had hoped for a successful career and love. After her remission, her definition of success changed. She adopted a puppy, Oscar, borrowed a friend’s car, learned to drive, and embarked upon a 100 day, 15,000 mile road trip across the country to meet with some people who had sent her letters of love and support when she was sick. 

Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted is about Suleika’s fight against cancer, and so much more. It explores what living truly means and how to emerge to the other side of pain stronger with a clearer vision of the meaning of life. This book is about new beginnings. 

We read books for many reasons. Personally, I love reading because books teach me empathy. They allow me to understand that everyone is fighting their own battle and I need to extend grace. In this particular book, Jaouad’s struggle against cancer was painful to read, however, I drew inspiration from her resilience, her fierce determination to win, her understanding and respect for other people’s pain, and by the love and support that held her up. The love came not only from her immediate family – her parents, brother, boyfriend, friends but also from complete strangers who never met her. The innate goodness of humanity shone brightly in this memoir, and it gave me hope. 

Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life interrupted by Suleika Jaouad is available in book, e-book, and e-audiobook formats.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch, where she facilitates Light But Not Fluffy and co-facilitates Global Reads. She keeps the hope alive that someday she will reach the bottom of her to-read list.

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

A deep red cover is illustrated in beige with twining roses, full of blooms and thorns. The title works into the top and the author's name at the bottom.

One of the pleasures of reading Orwell’s Roses is its unexpected turns from one subject to the next. – NPR

by Kristen B.

Do you enjoy tangential conversations? Where you’re not sure how you discussed so many things in one sitting? Have I got a book for you! Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit contains loosely connected essays that meander through several subjects. She recounts her global travels and wide-ranging interests, examining them all through the lens of George Orwell and his love of green and growing things. Every section starts with a variation of the sentence, “In 1936, a writer planted roses.”

Of course, the writer in question is Orwell himself, who planted a garden that contained roses at the rural cottage where he and his wife were living. The biographical bits about him include his family’s privileged background, its more recent impoverished status, his early life in India and Burma, and his latter life retreat to the remote, Scottish island of Jura. His dedication to socialist causes led him to volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, fighting against Franco. His was seriously injured, and the entire experience informed much of his early writing. Orwell suffered his entire life from weak lungs, complicated by his time in both sub-tropical countries and a period spent destitute in Spain. He eventually died of tuberculosis at the age of 46. He left a legacy of prescient writing, decrying the evils of totalitarianism, but he considered his gardens and roses equally important, as revealed in some of his journalism.

Solnit’s chapters move among these facts, linking them with socialism, coal mining, art in Mexico, Soviet politics, and the rose-growing industry in modern Colombia. She actually travels to Bogota and finagles a rare tour of a flower factory. Another chapter discusses British portraitist Joshua Reynolds and Orwell’s family pedigree, which connects to anti-colonial discourse about the Empire’s reliance on Caribbean sugar and its slave economy. Which, in turn, returns her to the notion of “genteel nature,” where the wealthy and titled classes had their fashions evolve from structured, manicured gardens to more relaxed, wild cottage gardens. At the same time, she considers how the ancient custom of holding land in common disappeared with the advent of enclosure laws and how that affected lower classes. This, in turn, returns her thoughts to Orwell and his roses.

The entire book reads in this sort of overlapping, interleaved, circular fashion: much, I suppose, in the manner of rose petals. It’s all interesting, and I enjoyed the interwoven ideas. But it does seem a little disjointed at times. While Orwell and roses act as the connective threads, the book serves more as a social and historical review of certain strains of thought. I am not a regular reader of nonfiction. The ever-changing discussion worked in my favor, as there was always something new just a few pages away. It also inspired me to put both Orwell and Solnit on my future reading lists.

Orwell’s Roses is available from HCLS in book format and also as an e-book and e-audiobook from Libby/OverDrive.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, dance, and watch baseball in season (but not all at the same time).

Arrow Through the Heart

Black and White photo shows Andy Gibb performing in a white suit.

By Angie E.

“What really surprised me was how well people who knew him still talk about him,” Matthew Hild tells Closer magazine about his experience with writing his new book Arrow Through The Heart: The Biography of Andy Gibb. “People remember him as the kindest and sweetest person. They all said he had a vulnerability about him that didn’t prepare him for being a star.”

Born in Manchester, England, Andy was the youngest brother of the Bee Gees. He began his solo career in 1977 with the single “Words and Music,” which reached the top of the charts in Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. In 1979, he was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best New Artist.

Despite Andy’s own achievements as a musician and singer, with hits like “I Just Want to Be Your Everything,” “Shadow Dancing” and “Thicker Than Water,” he spent much of his life struggling to be his own person, separate from the gigantic success of The Bee Gees. This constant insecurity and his heartbreak over the end of his relationship with Dallas star Victoria Principal are thought to have led to Andy’s battle with substance abuse and depression which, over time, destroyed his health and damaged his reputation.

By early February of 1988, it seemed as if he had made inroads in beating his addiction; he started working on a new album. Less than a month later, though, things took a turn when he complained of chest pains and was admitted to the hospital. On March 10 Andy died from myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle.

Hild shares that Andy Gibb and Karen Carpenter once shyly held hands during a Broadway production of The Pirates of Penzance in New York City. They had been introduced through a mutual friend of theirs, Olivia Newton John, and though Andy and Karen never dated, they stayed in touch. Reading about the fragile nature they had in common and that touching moment in the theater just hit me so hard as I read Hild’s words.

Cover of "The Very Best of Andy Gibb" album, complete with feathered hair and undone shirt and vest.

Their music had been a huge part of my childhood and early teen years, as had the Bee Gees, and their music still means so much to me today. Both singers were known for their gentle and caring sides and for having lovely voices. Both lost their lives way too soon.

Andy’s voice, even more gentle and sweet than his older brother Barry’s, had always spoken to my heart. Even now I remember how I felt the first time I heard the sincerely passionate “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” in Harmony Hut at Security Square Mall and can still smell the print from the many issues of Teen Beat Andy adorned.

It was this part of me that resurfaced last week as I browsed the new non-fiction section at Central and spotted the cover of Arrow Through The Heart. I gasped and immediately pulled the book off the shelf, startled to see it and its serious treatment of a singer often relegated to “teen idol” status in pop culture history. As tragic of Andy’s story is, I am so glad Matthew Hild decided to put this book out into the world. It’s not sensational or salacious in nature at all and gives a voice to an underrated singer and lost soul.

You can listen to Andy Gibb, free, on Hoopla, where you’ll findThe Very Best of Andy Gibb as well of other albums, including: Shadow Dancing, After Dark and Flowing Rivers.

As music critic Amy Hanson writes about The Very Best of Andy Gibb on “Laugh if you must, dismiss if you’re so inclined, but no matter what anyone may argue, it cannot be disputed that Andy Gibb realized many of his aspirations across this LP and, in so doing, became a vital part of the late ’70s music scene.”

Angie is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Her ideal day is reading in her cozy armchair, with her cat Henry next to her.

Books and Classes for Black History Month

The illustration reads Black History Month, with two silhouetted figures to either side and a diamond patter in green, red, and black above and below. The lower pattern

by Brandon B.

February calls us, as a society, to reflect and honor the contributions of Black Americans who made our country. The late, great Carter G. Woodson is considered the father of Black History Month. Woodson is the second African American to earn a Ph.D., after Edward Alexander Bouchet earned one in physics from Yale in 1876. The fight for equality, justice, and humanity for African Americans has always been a topic of discussion.

In the past century, Blacks have had to overcome Jim Crow laws. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Supreme Court cases to desegregate schools helped to change American culture. Thurgood Marshall and a team of NAACP attorneys fought against the “separate but equal” doctrine in Brown vs Board of Education. Signed by Lyndon B. Johnson, the Voting Rights Act strengthened the right to vote that had been granted to Black men with the 15th Amendment. All women had to wait for the 19th Amendment to grant suffrage.

To celebrate Black History, consider a visit to the Equity Resource Center at HCLS Central Branch, which has a great selection of books, movies, and audio materials that showcase many groups. Some classic titles that celebrate Black culture and contributions include James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Consider watching films, such as Selma, that tell the story of Civil Rights leaders and a collective group of individuals, who fought for the right to vote.

Black History Month is a time of reflection, healing, and celebration. In February, take the opportunity to learn about Black culture and history through classes, books, and films.

Art Wars! Black History Month Edition 
Tue   Feb 7         6:30 – 8 pm  
HCLS Miller Branch
Ages 11-18. Registration required, drop-in if space permits.
Create artwork in 40 mins! Learn a little about prominent African American artists, then use that inspiration. Enter the Art War contest for a chance to win a prize, or just create and enjoy! Materials provided.  

Wiki Edit-a-Thon: A Celebration of Black Authors and Artists 
Thu   Feb 9    5:30 – 8:30 pm
For adults. Register.
Edit Wikipedia pages of Black authors and artists whose works are found in our library collection. The evening is dedicated to collaborating on research, writing, and editing relevant Wikipedia pages. Participants check pages and cite sources as they work.

Black History of Howard County 
Sat Feb 11 1 – 2:30 pm
HCLS Savage Branch
Ages 14-18 and adults. Register.
Learn about the history of African Americans in Howard County and the town of Savage, as collected in History of Blacks in Howard County, Maryland: Oral History, Schooling, and Contemporary Issues. Hear about particular players in local history and learn why Howard County is the way it is today, with historical and personal perspective from Deborah Costley, local historian and genealogist. Share any experiences brought up as part of our Brave Voices, Brave Choices project.

African Experience Tour 
Wed Feb 15 4:30 – 5:30 pm & 7 – 8 pm 
HCLS Miller Branch
Ages 8-11. 60 min. Ticket required. Tickets available at the children’s desk 15 minutes before class. 
Learn about the diversity of African culture through hands-on exploration of artwork, videos, and discussion, facilitated by Doris Ligon, director and co-founder of the African Art Museum of Maryland.

Brandon is a Customer Service Specialist at HCLS Central Branch who loves reading, football, and taking nice long walks around his neighborhood.

Cover image by Freepik.

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. 

Author Works with Kathryn Finney

Thursday, Jan 19
6:30 – 7:30 pm
Registration and more information at

Turn your passion into profit! If you have ever dreamed about starting a business, you need to know about Kathryn Finney. She encourages you to not wait for the system to let you in. Her new book, Build the D*mn Thing, is the essential guide to knowing, breaking, remaking, and building your own rules of entrepreneurship.

She explains how to build a business from the ground up, from developing a business plan to finding investors, growing a team, and refining a product.  

Finney, an investor and startup champion, is the founder and managing general partner of Genius Guild, a Chicago-based venture fund that invests in scalable businesses led by Black founders using innovation to build and promote healthy communities. Build The D*mn Thing: How to Start a Successful Business if You’re Not a Rich White Guy made the Wall Street Journal bestsellers list in its first week of release.

In partnership with Columbia Inspired magazine and The 3rd, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, co-created, community of Women of Color entrepreneurs.

Wrapping Up 2022

Kristen B. and Julie F., Chapter Chats editors

Thank you! We appreciate our readers and subscribers who have followed Chapter Chats through another year. We share a wide variety of posts with you, from Winter Reading selections to upcoming author events to a tremendous selection of reviews – fiction and nonfiction, for adults, teens, and children.

A fairly plain cover with a red edge and the title in script and the author's name hand lettered. A small wolf stands between author and title lines.

Here are some of the most-viewed posts of the year:

These posts garnered fewer views, but are definitely worth a look if you missed them:

A black cover with gold text and a mysterious illustration of the phases of the moon, a mystical eyes, and spiral all centered above a book.

And, by far, the most viewed post since Chapter Chats began in 2020: How to Bypass the News Paywall with Your Library Card.

For more great book recommendations: HiJinx, the HCLS podcast, wrapped up its year with folks talking about their favorite reads of 2022: listen here.

We hope you’ll stick with us as we head into 2023! Happy New Year!

What’s On Your Shelf?

The picture is of a tan bookshelf, with "What's On Your Shelf?" printed across the center, and cartoon stacks of colorful books on either side, each topped by a green bookworm with red reading glasses reading a red book. Above and below the title are photographs of book covers and of two librarians, each smiling and holding a novel for the camera. The books shared are Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang, The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson, Grayson by Lynne Cox, and Cambridge Blue by Alison Bruce.

By Piyali C. and Julie F.

Have you ever wanted to bend the ear of a fellow book lover about your latest author or series discovery? If you have a recent read that you can’t wait to share, please join us on Zoom for What’s On Your Shelf? In this virtual class, we not only talk about a few of our favorite books and hear from you about your favorites, we also discuss fun questions about books in general:

Who is your favorite protagonist of all time?

What do you love most about the genre of your choice?

Which book changed your perspective?

The possibilities are endless and enticing!

Share fiction and/or nonfiction titles that are on your bookshelf and we will share a few titles from our shelves. If you don’t have a book to share, find inspiration in what others recommend and start building your holiday gift-giving or winter reading list.

In our recent in-person branch sessions, readers have also had the opportunity to ask for recommendations or to ask our instructors questions about books, reading, and the library. Previous discussion topics have included book donations, Little Free Libraries, and Goodreads (the world’s largest website for readers and book recommendations).

Please join us on Thursday, December 8 at 2 pm to talk about all things books! Register here to receive a Zoom link.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction and keeps the hope alive that someday she will reach the bottom of her to-read list. Look for Piyali’s newest Miller book discussion group, Light But Not Fluffy, in spring 2023.

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. Julie facilitates the Bas Bleu and Spies, Lies, and Alibis book discussion groups at Miller.

Veterans Recommend Books

Shows an armed company with their gear walking across a sandy landscape.

by Rohini G.

Veterans, both active and retired military, participated in a recent online book discussion series. During five monthly facilitated sessions, conversations centered on military experiences and a unique set of readings, which included classics, fiction, memoirs, poetry, short stories, articles, and essays. The readings related in some way to military experiences or offered a veteran’s perspective. A new session begins in 2023. The Veterans Book Group is coordinated statewide by Maryland Humanities and is supported in part by the Wawa Foundation.

“If I had to narrow it down to one, it would be The Forgotten 500 by Gregory A. Freeman. The book recounts the details of American airmen shot down in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia, and the local Serbian farmers who risked their lives to give them refuge. I really enjoyed learning about a relatively lesser-known WWII operation, and I’m always fascinated by the lengths to which humans will go to help one another when faced with desperate circumstances. This book was really good.”  – Dave O.

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene B. Sledge is, perhaps, the finest individual memoir of the Pacific War. John Keegan, the noted British military historian, spoke highly of it. Ken Burns used it as a source for his documentary, The War.”
– Eugene O.

In The Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat by Rick Atkinson was my favorite book of the list we had to read. I like all books that have to deal with soldiers and this was one of the best. This book was well written and contained many individual issues that affect soldiers.” – Ron B.

HCLS joins the wider community in remembering with gratitude the service of our veterans, including the HCLS employees who have served. We are thankful for their patriotism, their willingness to serve and sacrifice for their country in wartime and in peacetime, and their love for and loyalty to our country and its citizens.

Rohini G. is an Adult Curriculum Specialist with Howard County Library System who coordinates the Veterans Book Club.